Whiplash Associated Disorder

Authored by Unknown.

Since 2007, 46% of motor vehicle claims have had whiplash as one of their injuries. It’s estimated that 30-50% of these claims will report chronic or persistent symptoms (> 3 months). While there is an abundance of research being conducted into whiplash there is often a variance between the magnitude of injury and the resulting pain or disability.

What actually happens in ‘whiplash’

Whiplash is an acceleration and deceleration mechanism of energy transfer to the neck. The neck is uncontrollably forced into hyper-flexion and then hyper-extension. This often happens in motor vehicle accidents and in sporting injuries such as snowboarding and diving.

Whiplash result in a large number of clinical manifestations, hence the name whiplash associated disorder. It can affect the following structures:

  • Disc
  • Facet joint
  • Ligaments
  • Nervous system
  • Vascular system
  • Adjacent joints e.g. jaw

In whiplash, there can be a notable difference between the size of injury and severity of symptoms or disability. Symptoms are often not felt immediately and can be delayed by up to 48 hours.

Because it can affect so many structures, the symptoms are variable:

  • Neck and shoulder pain
  • Neck and upper back stiffness
  • Loss of muscle control and altered muscle recruitment patterns
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Tinnitus (ringing in ear)
  • Muscle weakness

Classification of WAD

WAD is classified on the severity and therefore this dictates the treatment approach.

What do you do after a whiplash incident?

If you experience a whiplash injury, then your doctor or physiotherapist can guide you in the right direction. In some cases, imaging is needed, but for the majority of people no imaging is required and you are clear to start physiotherapy and rehabilitation ASAP.

Research shows us that the most effective method of managing whiplash is a combination of the following:

  • Staying active and keep the neck moving, complete rest will slow recovery times
  • Continue your regular activities e.g. work, social activities
  • General exercise to build strength and flexibility
  • Have an extensive physiotherapy assessment and start at patient specific rehabilitation program.


Your physiotherapist will assess your neck and related areas and decide on the best course of action. They will start an early range of motion and rehabilitation program to facilitate early mobilisation and pain relief. Physiotherapy will often include soft tissue massage, joint mobilisation, postural re-training, movement/strength exercises and education on the prognosis and progression of the injury.

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