Whiplash Injuries: This Is What Happens

Research has shown that more than 80% of individuals involved in a motor vehicle accident suffer a whiplash injury and more than 50% of those injured report ongoing or recurrent neck pain 1 year after the accident. A whiplash injury occurs when there’s a sudden, forceful snapping of the head backward then forward, or vice versa. They most commonly result from auto accidents but can also be seen with high contact sports or from a fall.

With whiplash injuries, the joints and soft tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, discs) of the neck extend beyond their normal range of motion. This can cause muscular strains, ligamentous sprains, or tearing if severe enough. The body will then stiffen and tighten up to the protect the area from any further damage.

Often times symptoms don’t present immediately after, rather they tend to develop gradually in the hours or days following the injury. In fact, research shows up to 80% of people experience late onset dizziness, vertigo, or disequilibrium.

Other symptoms may include but aren’t limited to cervical pain and loss of neck range of motion, headaches (most often starting at the base of the skull), shoulder and upper back pain, numbness or tingling in the arms, fatigue, blurred vision, and sleep disturbances.

This is why it’s always a good idea to seek the help of a healthcare professional after a car accident, sports injury, or other traumatic event even if you feel fine and don’t have any initial symptoms of whiplash. Delaying care and proper treatment can prolong the recovery time and become a chronic issue.

Some other statistics from the literature:

  • Rear-end impacts of 5 mph or less have consistently shown to give rise to significant symptoms.
  • Individuals with prior neck pain and headaches are 3x more likely to experience symptoms after a motor vehicle accident (MVA).
  • Up to 90% of people who have neurological signs after an MVA may still have symptoms 1 year after.
  • 31% report persistent low back pain 1 year after an MVA.
  • 5 years after an MVA, whiplash patients were 2x more likely to report pain compared to non-whiplash patients.


Dr. Ryan Donahue was born and raised in Sioux City, IA. He attended the University of Iowa where he received a bachelor’s degree in Health and Human Physiology before graduating Magna Cum Laude from Northwestern Health Sciences University as a Doctor of Chiropractic. Dr. Donahue is a Certified Provider of Active Release Technique, RockTape kinesiology tape, and SMART Tools (Instrument Assisted Soft Tissue Mobilization). He has also had extensive post graduate training in various treatment and rehabilitation approaches that include McKenzie Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy and Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS).

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