A whiplash injury is caused when your head makes a violent and unrestrained backward and forward movement. The term whiplash comes from the movement the end of a whip makes when cracked. This injury can damage vertebral bones, muscles, ligaments, and joints in the neck and upper spine.
A well-known cause of whiplash is being hit from behind in a traffic accident. Such a hit causes your head to suddenly whip backward and then forward. Whiplash can also be caused by a sudden violent movement to the side or backward, such as during sports play or due to a fall down stairs. Technically whiplash is defined as an acceleration injury (head strikes forward) or a deceleration injury (head strikes backward).
Following a whiplash injury, symptoms of pain and stiffness in the neck may be immediate or may arise one to two weeks later. Muscle spasms increase tension in the neck muscles, serving as a safety mechanism to prevent further damage to the traumatized neck.
Spontaneous healing is likely within two years but in 70 percent of cases, symptoms disappear within three to six months. Chronic symptoms with restrictions to daily activities occur in about 30 percent of whiplash cases while approximately 10 percent experience severe pain for a period longer than two years. It is difficult to predict the course of whiplash symptoms.