Barbara was on her way to work one morning when a distracted driver rear-ended her car at a stoplight. Though the collision wasn’t severe, Barbara felt a sharp pain in her neck immediately after impact. She was able to drive home, but woke up the next day with a terrible headache.
Over the next few weeks, Barbara continued having headaches, neck pain, and stiffness. She went to see her doctor, who said she likely had whiplash from the accident. Barbara was confused about what exactly whiplash was and how it could be causing her lingering headaches.
Like Barbara, many people who experience whiplash injuries wonder what is causing their painful headaches, and when the misery might finally subside. This article will explore the connection between whiplash and headaches, discussing potential causes, timeline, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options. With proper care, most whiplash-related headaches can be effectively managed for relief.
What is Whiplash?
Whiplash is an injury to the neck muscles, ligaments, and vertebrae caused by a sudden forceful back-and-forth movement of the neck and head. It most often occurs during a rear-end motor vehicle collision, but can also result from sports injuries, physical abuse, and other traumas. The abrupt motion damages the soft tissues of the neck leading to inflammation, muscle spasms, and pain.
How Common Are Whiplash and Resulting Headaches?
Whiplash injuries are very common, with over 1 million Americans affected every year. One study found that 83% of whiplash patients develop painful headaches afterward. Headaches are often one of the primary symptoms of whiplash along with neck stiffness, shoulder pain, dizziness, and ringing in the ears.
How Can Whiplash Cause Headaches?
There are a few ways whiplash injuries can contribute to painful headaches:
Damaged muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the neck can cause local pain felt in the head. Inflammation of injured tissues can irritate nerves and cause headaches.
Misalignment or slight dislocation of vertebrae in the upper neck may pinch nerves, restrict proper blood flow, or put pressure on the brainstem all leading to headaches.
Whiplash may trigger chronic migraine disorders in those already prone to migraines.
Common Symptoms of Whiplash Headaches:
Location: Whiplash headaches most often occur at the base of the skull, forehead, temples, top of the head, or behind the eyes.
Severity: Pain ranges from mild to severe throbbing, piercing, pressure, or shooting sensations.
Timing: Headaches may start shortly after the injury or take weeks to fully develop. Chronic headaches can come and go at random.
Timeline of Whiplash Headaches
Whiplash symptoms like headache and neck pain can start immediately or take days or even weeks to fully develop. Here is the general timeline:
Initial Headache Phase: Headaches begin within the first 2 weeks after injury. This acute headache phase may involve severe pain, nausea, dizziness, ringing ears, and vision problems.
Subacute Phase: 2 to 12 weeks after injury. Headaches fluctuate in frequency and intensity. Other whiplash symptoms continue.
Chronic Phase: Headaches lasting 3 months or longer post-injury. The pain may come and go. Only 18% fully recover in the first 3 months.
Diagnosing Whiplash Headaches
To confirm a whiplash-related headache, doctors conduct a physical exam, review symptoms, and may order imaging tests like x-ray or MRI. They look for reduced range of motion or tenderness in the neck as well as head and neck pain patterns typical of whiplash sufferers.
Treating Whiplash Headaches
Treatment focuses on relieving pain and restoring proper neck function. Options include:
Over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers
Physical therapy exercises to increase neck mobility
Upper cervical chiropractic care targeting the top vertebrae (atlas and axis) has shown promising results for treating headache and neck pain related to whiplash injuries.
Massage therapy to loosen tightened muscles causing headache pain
Most patients use a combination approach. Proper treatment can help minimize headaches but it may take months to fully resolve whiplash pain.
Managing Whiplash Headaches at Home
While professional treatment is important for dealing with whiplash headaches, there are also some simple self-care tips that can provide relief at home:
Use Ice and Heat
Apply an ice pack to the neck and head for 15-20 minutes to reduce inflammation. Use multiple times per day.
Use a heating pad on low or medium setting to help relax tense muscles.
Get Plenty of Rest
Rest the neck as much as possible in the days following injury to allow tissues to heal.
Sleep with an extra pillow or cervical neck pillow to support the neck.
Take frequent rest breaks when sitting at a desk or computer.
Take Over-the-Counter Medications
OTC drugs like acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen can temporarily alleviate headache pain. This is only a temporary solution and should not be taken for more than a week or two.
Follow dosage instructions carefully.
Do Light Stretches and Exercises
Gentle neck stretches and rotations can help increase mobility.
Low-impact cardio like walking can boost blood flow.
Avoid lifting or strength training that might strain the neck.
Watch Your Posture
Sit and stand tall, avoiding hunching the neck and shoulders.
Use ergonomic cushions or devices to maintain alignment if sitting at a desk.
Stress and mental tension can worsen headache pain.
Try relaxing activities like yoga, deep breathing, or meditation.
Get emotional support if you feel depressed or anxious.
While home remedies can provide some relief, be sure to follow up with a neck specialist if headaches persist or worsen. With proper care, most whiplash headache pain will resolve over time.
Upper Cervical Chiropractic, Whiplash and Headaches Research
Whiplash injuries often result in headaches and neck pain, and neck specialists who utilize upper cervical chiropractic care has been studied as a potential treatment for these symptoms.
Here are some key findings from the research:
A systematic review of chiropractic management of adults with Whiplash-Associated Disorders (WAD) found that upper cervical chiropractic care improves cervical range of motion.
A case report on Cervical Whiplash Syndrome (CWS) suggests that symptoms can take hours or even days to appear, with the most common being neck pain (88%-100%) and headache (54%-66%).
Research suggests that old whiplash injuries can lead to migraines, a condition associated with the Cranio-Cervical Syndrome. Upper cervical chiropractors have identified this syndrome over 80 years ago, calling it the Atlas Subluxation Complex Syndrome.
A study on the management of post-traumatic headache found that about 90% of patients complain about head and/or neck pain, as well as dizziness, sleep problems, and anxiety following a whiplash injury.
A review of 485 articles on Whiplash and Whiplash associated disorders found that symptoms like neck pain, headache, numbness or tingling, loss of range of motion in the neck and jaw pain are common. Upper Cervical chiropractic care may be an option to help recover.
A meta-analysis showed that a pooled relative frequency of neck pain was 84% within 7 days after whiplash injury. At 12 months after injury, 38% of patients with whiplash still experienced neck pain, while 38% of whiplash patients reported headache at the same time interval after injury.
These studies suggest that upper cervical chiropractic care may be beneficial in managing symptoms associated with whiplash, including headaches and neck pain.
Upper Cervical Chiropractic Care for Whiplash Headaches
Upper cervical chiropractic care is a specialized approach that focuses on the precise alignment of the two uppermost vertebrae in the spine, the atlas (C1) and axis (C2). This area is critical because it houses the brainstem, a key part of the central nervous system that plays a role in transmitting signals between the brain and the rest of the body. Misalignments in this area, often resulting from whiplash injuries, can potentially disrupt these signals and lead to various health issues, including headaches and neck pain.
Upper cervical chiropractic care can help manage these symptoms in several ways:
Improving Cervical Range of Motion: A systematic review of upper cervical chiropractic management of adults with WAD found that chiropractic care can improve cervical range of motion.
Addressing Musculoskeletal Signs: Upper cervical chiropractic care can address musculoskeletal signs associated with WAD, such as decreased range of motion and point tenderness. This is achieved by realigning the upper cervical spine, which can help restore normal function and reduce pain. Accidents and injuries associated with whiplash commonly lead to misalignments in the upper neck.
Managing Chronic Neck Pain: A case-control study found that patients with chronic neck pain, often a result of whiplash injuries, are more likely to have acquired their pain as a result of a motor vehicle accident. Upper cervical chiropractic care was suggested as a potential treatment for these patients in the study.
Reducing Upper Cervical Instability: Whiplash trauma can result in upper cervical instability, a condition where excessive movement is observed at the C1–2 levels. A case series of adult patients found a significant correlation between improved cervical lordosis (the natural, inward curve of the neck) and reduction in measurable instability. This suggests that enhancing cervical lordosis through upper cervical chiropractic care can contribute to improvement in signs and symptoms of upper cervical instability.
Treating Post-Concussion Symptoms and Whiplash: A case study demonstrated improvements in post-concussion symptoms and whiplash in a 15-year-old male following chiropractic treatment, which included 10 treatments over a period of 8 weeks.
How Long Is Recovery from Whiplash Headache?
The time it takes to see improvement with upper cervical chiropractic care for whiplash-associated disorders can vary significantly depending on the severity of the injury, the individual's overall health, and the specific care plan. However, several studies provide some general timelines:
A study found that over 90% of whiplash patients under upper cervical chiropractic care showed notable improvement over a 6-month period.
These timelines are averages and individual results can vary. It's also important to note that successful treatment often requires a comprehensive approach that may include not only upper cervical chiropractic care but also lifestyle modifications, physical therapy, and other treatments as needed. Always consult with an upper cervical specialist for personalized advice.
How Do You Treat Whiplash in the Head?
The success rate of upper cervical chiropractic care for whiplash-associated disorders can vary depending on the specific measures of success. However, several studies provide some insights:
A study found a significant correlation between improved cervical lordosis (the natural, inward curve of the neck) and reduction in measurable instability, determined by C1 lateral mass overhang on C2 with lateral flexion. These observations suggest that enhancing cervical lordosis can contribute to improvement in signs and symptoms of upper cervical instability.
Studies have shown that upper cervical chiropractic care can be effective in managing symptoms associated with WAD. For instance, one study concluded that upper cervical chiropractic is the only proven treatment for chronic neck pain caused by whiplash.
Unlike some other treatments such as surgery, upper cervical chiropractic care is non-invasive, which can reduce the risk of complications and recovery time.
Frequently Asked Questions About Whiplash Headaches
How long does whiplash headache last?
Whiplash headaches can begin immediately or take weeks to fully develop. The initial acute headache phase usually lasts 2 weeks. However, headaches can come and go for 3-6 months. About 18% of patients still have headaches after 3 months. With proper treatment, most whiplash headaches resolve within 6-9 months.
Can whiplash cause headaches and nausea?
Yes, headaches and nausea commonly occur together after a whiplash injury. The headache pain itself, neck pain, and possible concussion from the accident can all cause nausea or vomiting. The nausea should subside as the whiplash symptoms improve.
What are the symptoms of bad whiplash?
Severe whiplash involves intense, persistent headache and neck pain along with reduced mobility, shoulder pain, dizziness, ringing ears, vision changes, and numbness or tingling. Seek medical attention if your symptoms are severe, get worse, or prevent daily activities.
How long does whiplash take to settle?
Whiplash symptoms often fluctuate but should gradually settle over 6-9 months with proper rest and treatment. However, some patients have symptoms that persist for a year or longer, especially headaches and neck stiffness. See your doctor if symptoms do not improve after 6 months.
How do you treat whiplash in the head?
To treat a whiplash headache, use ice packs to reduce inflammation, over-the-counter pain medication as needed, massage therapy to relax muscles, physical therapy exercises for the neck, and chiropractic adjustments focusing on the upper neck vertebrae.
How long is recovery from whiplash headache?
Most patients recover from whiplash headaches within 6-9 months with appropriate treatment. However, some people have chronic whiplash headaches lasting more than a year, especially if the neck injury caused structural damage. Stay active and patient during your recovery, seek treatment early, and avoid reinjury to optimize healing.
Whiplash injuries are a common result of car accidents and other traumas that violently jerk the head back and forth. The abrupt motion damages soft tissues in the neck, often leading to painful headaches that can linger for months. Whiplash headaches likely occur from a combination of injured neck structures including irritated nerves, inflamed tissues, and misaligned upper neck vertebrae.
If you experience headaches after a whiplash injury, see an upper cervical specialist for an evaluation. Though whiplash headaches can be stubborn to resolve fully, most patients find relief through a combination approach of rest, home remedies, and professional upper cervical chiropractic care. With time and patience, you can recover and get back to your normal active life.
The lingering misery of whiplash headaches has a solution. Are you ready to take the next step to find fast relief, maximum recovery, and long-lasting results?
CBS News highlighted the alleviation of Migraines and Headaches.
The content and materials provided in this web site are for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to supplement or comprise a medical diagnosis or other professional opinion, or to be used in lieu of a consultation with a physician or competent health care professional for medical diagnosis and/or treatment. All content and materials including research papers, case studies and testimonials summarizing patients' responses to care are intended for educational purposes only and do not imply a guarantee of benefit. Individual results may vary, depending upon several factors including age of the patient, severity of the condition, severity of the spinal injury, and duration of time the condition has been present.