Can Whiplash Symptoms Be Delayed?

February 9, 2024
Joshua Abrams is a fellowship-trained and board-certified orthopedic spine surgeon who employs new cutting-edge techniques to minimize post-surgical pain and optimize patients’ experience.

Whiplash is caused by a rapid back-and-forth movement of the neck. It is sudden and quick, and the abrupt motion causes the muscles and ligaments to stretch and tear. Whiplash commonly occurs as a result of a car accident in which you come to a sudden halt after traveling at a high speed. However, you can experience whiplash because of a sports injury or an amusement park ride.

The cervical spine — the vertebrae just below the skull in the C1 to C7 region — is most directly impacted. However, lower vertebrae can also be affected, as can the intervertebral discs that act as shock absorbers between the spine bones. These discs can be displaced or even herniated as a result of whiplash. Additionally, ligaments and muscles can get pulled and torn, and the nerves that run through the vertebrae can get pinched. 

You’ll likely experience some symptoms immediately after impact, but certain other symptoms could come on later. If your experience matches those listed below, reach out to an orthopedic spine center to receive support.

The Immediate Impact of Whiplash

Many whiplash symptoms occur directly after the initial incident. Immediately after experiencing whiplash, you might feel: 

  • Neck pain and stiffness: Pain may be localized to the upper vertebrae. In more severe cases, it could spread to the shoulders and upper back, depending on what muscles were strained.
  • Headaches: After a few minutes, you might experience a headache that starts at the base of the skull and spreads upwards. This is typically caused by the pull and tug of the muscles in this area from the whiplash. 
  • Dizziness: If your nerves are disrupted, you might experience dizziness. This is caused by the connection of your nerves to your inner ear, which is what gives you balance.
  • Reduced range of motion: When muscles are torn or stretched, they often get inflamed afterward, causing a limitation in your movement. This is often accompanied by a sharp pain when you try to move or rotate your neck.

The Possibility of Late Whiplash Symptoms

While whiplash symptoms often arise quickly, experiencing a delayed response to whiplash is fairly common. You can experience delayed whiplash symptoms after a car accident or any other situation where your neck has been jerked. The delayed symptoms can appear anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks after the initial incident. This is often because your body releases adrenaline and endorphins right after the injury, which often mask the initial symptoms. Eventually, these chemicals disperse, and symptoms will begin to arise.

Another reason for the delay involves inflammation. Inflammation can take several hours to develop, and only at its height will you notice the full extent of the injury. Microtears could also happen at the time of the injury but be too small to notice at first. Over time, however, the weakened areas could escalate and become aggravated.

Recognizing and Treating Delayed Whiplash Symptoms

Most whiplash symptoms clear up on their own, but others slowly increase over time. Some delayed whiplash symptoms that you may experience include:

  • Persistent neck pain and stiffness.
  • Headaches, especially at the base of the skull.
  • Dizziness or blurred vision. 
  • Tingling or numbness in your arms.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Memory problems.
  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Fatigue.
  • Depression. 
  • Ringing in the ears. 

You might also experience chronic pain as a result of whiplash, but this is more common when the initial symptoms started quickly and were very intense.  

Exploring Whiplash Treatments

You’ll want to seek the assistance of a medical professional if you notice any of these symptoms. A healthcare professional will likely suggest imaging tests — like CT scans or MRIs — to determine the extent of the injury. Once the scope of the injury has been determined, the healthcare professional will recommend a course of action, probably consisting of a combination of physical therapy, pain management and chiropractic care:

  • Pain management: Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen are often recommended. These medications help relieve stress and tension in the body. They also help the muscles relax, giving them the opportunity to rest and heal. 
  • Heat and cold therapy: Another way to get the muscles to relax is with heat and cold packs. If there is inflammation, then cold packs are recommended to reduce the swelling. When the inflammation has resolved, but the pain still persists, then heat packs can be helpful. You can also take warm showers if heating pads are not available. 
  • Physical therapy: Gentle stretches and strengthening exercises can go a long way in the healing process. These can help slowly restore motion and rebuild the muscles. 
  • At-home exercises: You can also do a series of exercises at home, like walking around the garden or block. You can make gentle stretches part of your morning routine or when you sit down to do work. A few shoulder rolls and chin rotations can help you get the ball rolling. 
  • Chiropractic care: If the whiplash is severe and has caused vertebrae misalignment, then a licensed chiropractor can gently manipulate it back and restore mobility. They often use alignment techniques to relieve tightness and pain. 
  • Surgery: Surgery is typically reserved for when the discs have ruptured or herniated, which is very rare. However, if this is the case, then a spinal stabilization method is usually recommended. You can talk to a healthcare professional about a bone fusion or artificial cervical implant. 

Schedule a Whiplash Consultation With Desert Institute for Spine Care

Desert Institute for Spine Care (DISC) is made up of a team of spinal experts who come together with one goal: to identify and treat spinal issues. We always aim to find nonsurgical or minimally invasive spine surgery options. If there is a way that the body can heal without surgery, that is always the first priority. Our board-certified surgeons are leaders in spine surgery and collectively have over 50 years of experience. 

We believe that patients should not suffer in pain and have to wait to receive treatment. We will listen to your story and treat the whole situation, not just the symptoms. If you’re experiencing persistent or delayed whiplash symptoms, reach out to us and schedule an appointment today. If you have concerns that your whiplash has worsened over time and you are experiencing long-term problems, then we will help you find the root of the problem. 

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