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What is whiplash injury?

Whiplash is a neck injury caused by a sudden movement of the head jerking forwards, backwards or sideways. It involves damage to the neck and surrounding tissues where the body comes to a sudden stop but momentum causes the head to keep moving. It's usually associated with road traffic accidents but can also happen following a fall, sports collision or accident at work.

You can suffer whiplash in a road accident whether you're the driver or a passenger. It can be acutely painful and limit your movements to the extent that you find it difficult to perform basic everyday tasks or even sleep properly.

If you've suffered a whiplash injury in an accident and would like to know more about your rights, call us confidentially on .

We look at what whiplash is and the impact it can have on your life.

What is whiplash? | National Accident Helpline

We look at what whiplash is and the impact it can have on your life.

Why is it called a whiplash injury?

The violent back and forth motion of the head after an impact is like the lash of a whip. The whipping action causes hyperextension of the neck as the head moves forward and then hyperflexion as the head rebounds off the seat headrest.

To give you an idea of the physical stresses involved, a vehicle occupant weighing 70kg and wearing a seatbelt will be subject to a hefty impact force of 357kg in a collision at just 10mph. Without a seatbelt, that same impact force rises to 1,780kg and can result in serious injury.

Did you know?

Whiplash injury is triggered if the difference between movements of the head and neck is sufficiently high. Research on the forces involved indicate that whiplash injury can occur at speeds above three miles per hour.

Source: Orthopaedic Proceedings Journal, 2018.

What are the symptoms of whiplash injury?

Whiplash injuries are often not immediately apparent and can take several hours or days to appear. The condition can last from days to weeks and even months. Whiplash injury isn't usually life-threatening but can cause extended periods of partial disability.

The abnormal S-shape that whiplash creates in the cervical (neck) area of the spine after the impact causes damage to the soft tissues that hold the neck vertebrae together. These soft tissues are called ligaments, facet capsules and muscles.

If you've been involved in an accident involving a sudden impact, signs that you may have suffered a whiplash injury include:

  • Neck pain
  • Neck stiffness
  • Difficulty turning your head
  • Prolonged and/or regular headaches - including migraines
  • Pain and muscle spasms in the shoulders and arms.

If you've experienced any of these symptoms after an accident, including a continuous ringing in the ears (tinnitus), please see your GP as soon as you can.

What is whiplash and how long does it last?

The length of time you can be affected by a whiplash injury largely depends on the severity of the accident impact. In a road traffic accident, the speed at impact is a major factor of how serious the condition might be. Lower speed accidents typically mean less serious symptoms.

The NHS estimates that while whiplash symptoms may worsen for a few days after the injury, the average recovery time is around 32 days. In severe cases, symptoms can last from months to a year or more. 

Chronic whiplash is where the condition lasts for six months or more. It can make everyday activities and simple tasks difficult and prevent you from enjoying your regular hobbies, exercise or sports activities. It's no surprise that chronic whiplash injury can also seriously affect mental health, causing problems such as anxiety and depression. 

Amelia experienced whiplash after a car accident

We helped Amelia after she suffered a whiplash injury in a road accident.

We came to a mini-roundabout and a car came into us. I didn't realise I'd injured myself at the time; it wasn't until 48 hours later when the injuries started to show. I was in agony. National Accident Helpline were really friendly and understood everything I was going through.


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How is a whiplash injury diagnosed?

If you think you may be suffering from a whiplash injury, then see your GP as soon as you can. In the consultation, they'll ask you about what happened and what symptoms you have, where they are and how long they last. Your GP will also ask you how easy it is to perform everyday tasks.  

Your GP will need to touch and move your head, neck and arms in order to check the:

  • Range of movement in your neck and shoulders.
  • Amount of movement that causes pain or makes it worse.
  • Tenderness in your back, shoulders or neck.
  • The reflexes, sensation and strength in your limbs.

What is the treatment for whiplash injury?

Whiplash recovery might involve taking time away from work, struggling with child care or missing out on your favourite hobbies. This is why it's important to take immediate action and seek advice on whiplash treatment from a medical professional.

Your GP will be able to help advise you on the path to your recovery. If you need ongoing physiotherapy, your GP will recommend one and the physiotherapist will be able to help you.  

They'll be able to advise you on things you can do to boost your whiplash recovery - such as massages, neck manipulations or gentle exercises to prevent your neck from stiffening up.

Specific treatments and rehabilitation depend on whether you have acute (lasting six months or less) or chronic whiplash (over six months). Remember that the cost of any physio sessions you require as part of your recovery will be taken into account as part of making a whiplash claim.

The NHS provides some good tips for recovering from whiplash injury.

How do I manage my whiplash injury symptoms?

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy recommends keeping your neck mobile and doing your day-to-day activities as best you can while recovering from your whiplash injury. 

The NHS recommends you should seek pain relief in the early stages of whiplash recovery using paracetamol or ibuprofen. Manage any stress and anxiety levels as your mental state is an important part of recovery. Avoid using a neck brace and don't rest your neck for long periods.

We understand how difficult it can be to go about day to day tasks when you're suffering from whiplash injury. When resting, avoid sleeping with more than one pillow so you don't strain your soft tissues any further. Remember that you should always consult your GP about using painkillers.

If you've suffered whiplash injury in an accident and would like to know more about your rights, call us confidentially on .

How can I get a better night's sleep with a whiplash injury?

If you're suffering with pain from a whiplash injury, it may not be as easy to sleep at night as usual. You might find it more comfortable to use a pillow to support your neck while laying in bed. Changing your sleeping position to your side or back may also be more comfortable.

Will I have to take time off work to recover from whiplash?

Recovering from whiplash injury varies from person to person. The NHS estimates that whiplash injury symptoms last just over 30 days, on average. Whether or not you need to take time off work will depend on the severity of your whiplash injury.

Your GP will be able to advise you and also issue the necessary paperwork for your employer if time off work is recommended for your recovery.

Kerri Burns is the Portal and Operations Manager at National Accident Law, our legal personal injury law firm

Whiplash injury can be seriously debilitating and can affect every aspect of people's lives at work and home - as well as their family relationships.

We're here to reassure people and take care of the whiplash claim while our customers get well.

Kerri Burns

Portal and Operations Manager

How do I find out more if my accident and whiplash injury was someone else's fault?

Call us on for a confidential chat with one of our friendly and legally-trained advisors. Tell us what happened in your own time and in your own way and we'll be able help give you the information you need. 
With us, you're in safe and highly-capable hands.

What can I do to prevent whiplash injury?

The majority of whiplash injuries occur in road traffic accidents. Here are our tips for adapting your driving style to protect yourself as much as possible from a whiplash injury.

Use the headrest on your seat

To get the best protection from whiplash, make sure your vehicle headrest (or head restraint) is properly positioned when driving.

  • Make sure the top of the restraint is level with the tops of your ears or the top of your head. 
  • Position the restraint so that it is around three inches from the back of your head when you're sitting in your normal driving position.
  • This is important: if the headrest is too far away, it won't do its safety job properly in an accident.
  • Equally, if it's set too low or too high, it may make any whiplash injury or associated injuries worse.

Sit as upright as you can and wear your seat belt

People naturally have different driving positions and it's not always easy to be completely orthodox. 

  • Make sure your seat is comfortably upright and allows you to have a bit of bend at the elbow when you're holding the steering wheel.
  • Always face forward as best you can so that your head stays in line with the headrest in an accident.
  • Make sure passenger headrests are positioned correctly.
  • Always make sure you and your passengers wear their seat belts. They'll restrain you in a crash and wearing them is also the law. 

Never drive too close to the vehicle in front

Always leave a safe distance between the vehicle ahead of you. If it stops suddenly for any reason, you'll have time to brake more gently so leave plenty of room for everyone's safety.

  • In normal conditions, always try to keep a two second gap between you and the vehicle ahead.  
  • Increase this distance at night or while driving in bad weather. This will give you time to anticipate and brake accordingly. 
  • On the motorway, certain sections have white chevrons painted on the tarmac.
  • Keeping two chevrons between you and the vehicle in front will keep you a minimum of two seconds apart.

Get in position if a crash is unavoidable

Always pay close attention to what's going on ahead of you. It'll help you spot an imminent accident and give you that vital few seconds to brace. 

  • Lean your head back onto the headrest, look and face forward in your seat.
  • Try not to tense up if you can - give your body the flex it needs to soak up a little bit of the impact.
  • Getting your posture right will help lessen the chances of whiplash injury.

Keep up your fitness

Physical fitness can make a difference to recovering from a whiplash injury. It's different for everyone but if you can keep exercising and keep your musculature in good shape, then do. It'll help you in the event of an accident.

The NHS Live Well website advises that you can strengthen your back and neck muscles by doing yoga, pilates or any other controlled exercises that stretch your muscles and help improve posture. These lifestyle changes can strengthen your back and neck, which can improve your whiplash recovery and help you avoid whiplash injuries in the future.

Check the in-car safety tech

Some vehicle manufacturers are now adding whiplash protection seats which dampen the effects of being struck from behind. If you're looking at buying a new vehicle, do check to see if the model you want is fitted with them.  

What complications can whiplash cause?

Acute or chronic whiplash injury can cause long-term complications. They include:

  • Debilitating pain and stiffness in the neck and shoulders.
  • Dizziness or blurred vision.
  • Ringing in the ears that's constant or varies in intensity.
  • Upper or lower pain.
  • Severe, chronic headaches and pain in the jaw.
  • Numbness or weakness in the hands, arms, or legs.
  • Difficulty sleeping, concentrating or memory problems.
  • In the most severe cases, causing serious psychological issues and even permanent personality changes.

If you've been injured in an accident and are suffering symptoms of whiplash injury, see your GP as soon as you can. To find out more about your rights in a confidential and friendly environment, call to speak with one of our legally-trained advisors on .

The rules for making a small personal injury claim following a road traffic accident changed on 31st May 2021. The government introduced a tariff for whiplash claims linking compensation awards to the duration of the injury. They are designed to reduce the number and cost of exaggerated or fraudulent claims plus reduce motor insurance premiums for drivers. The changes mean:

  • The small claims general damages limit will rise for road traffic accident injuries from £1,000 to £5,000.
  • Compensation for soft tissue and whiplash injury claims is now fixed, banded by severity, and lower than before.
  • People can no longer recover their legal costs from the other side in a small claim. These will now be deducted from compensation awards up to £5,000.'
  • Some other minor road traffic accident injuries - like simple fractures - are now classed as a small claim.
  • People now have the option to make a small road traffic accident claim themselves online, without needing help from a solicitor.

The changes do not affect vulnerable road users (like pedestrians or cyclists) and do not apply to other types of personal injury claim like accidents at work, accidents in public or medical negligence cases