The goals of whiplash treatment are to:
- Control pain
- Restore normal range of motion in your neck
- Get you back to your normal activities
Your treatment plan will depend on the severity of your whiplash injury. Some people only need over-the-counter medication and at-home care. Others may need prescription medication, specialized pain treatment or physical therapy.
Your doctor may recommend one or more of the following treatments to lessen pain:
- Rest. Rest may be helpful during the first 24 hours after injury, but too much bed rest may delay recovery.
- Heat or cold. Either heat or cold applied to the neck for 15 minutes up to six times a day can help you feel better.
- Over-the-counter pain medications. Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), often can control mild to moderate whiplash pain.
- Prescription medications. People with more-severe pain may benefit from treatment with certain antidepressant drugs that have been shown to relieve nerve pain.
- Muscle relaxants. Short-term use of these drugs may be recommended to loosen tight muscles and soothe pain. The medicine also can make you feel sleepy. It may be used to help restore normal sleep if pain prevents you from getting a good night's rest.
- Injections. An injection of lidocaine (Xylocaine) — a numbing medicine — into painful muscle areas may be used to decrease pain so that you can do physical therapy.
Your doctor will likely prescribe a series of stretching and movement exercises to help restore range of motion in your neck and get you back to your normal activities. Exercises may include:
- Rotating your neck in both directions
- Tilting your head side to side
- Bending your neck toward your chest
- Rolling your shoulders
Applying moist heat to the achy area or taking a warm shower may be recommended before exercise.
If you have ongoing whiplash pain or need assistance with range-of-motion exercises, your doctor may recommend that you see a physical therapist. Physical therapy (PT) can help you feel better and may prevent further injury.
Your physical therapist will guide you through exercises to strengthen your muscles, improve posture and restore normal movement. In some cases, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) may be used. TENS applies a mild electric current to the skin. Limited research suggests this treatment may temporarily ease neck pain. More research is needed to determine if it aids long-term recovery.
How many PT sessions are needed vary from person to person. Your physical therapist also can create a personalized exercise routine that you can do at home.
Soft foam cervical collars were once commonly used for whiplash injuries to hold the neck and head still. However, studies have shown that keeping the neck still for long periods of time can decrease muscle strength and interfere with recovery.
Recommendations for using a collar vary. Some suggest limiting use to no more than 72 hours, while others say it may be worn up to three hours a day for a few weeks. Your doctor will instruct you on how to properly use the collar, and for how long. Your doctor may also recommend use of a collar if it helps you sleep at night.