physical therapy for whiplash

Physical Therapy for Whiplash: A Recovery Guide

Did you know that nearly 3 million people suffer from whiplash each year? This common neck injury often occurs after a vehicle accident but can also happen as the result of playing contact sports, physical abuse or assault, slip and falls, or other types of accidents.

While the condition is often quite painful, many people find relief through physical therapy for whiplash. Want to know more about this effective treatment? Read through this simple recovery guide.

Stages of Whiplash

If you’re suffering from whiplash, you know just how painful it can be. Some of the most common symptoms of whiplash include:

  • Neck, shoulder, and low-back pain
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Stiffness
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Fatigue

It’s important to note that these symptoms may start to show immediately after the injury occurs or may take up to a few days to develop. Often, the symptoms are incredibly painful and debilitating.

Acute Stage

The first phase of whiplash is called the acute inflammatory process, or the acute stage. During this time, most people experience pain, joint and tissue swelling, and a decreased range of motion.

During this stage, the best treatment for whiplash includes ice and gentle massage. A physical therapist may also use ultrasound and/or electrical stimulation to reduce pain and inflammation. Depending on the extent of your injury, some gentle range of motion exercises may help reduce muscle guarding and prevent you from becoming overly stiff.

This stage generally lasts for about seven days.

Sub-Acute Stage

Next, is the sub-acute stage. This is also when your muscle stiffness hits its peak.

The same therapy methods used in the acute stage can continue and additional treatments should be added. This includes manual therapy, stretching, and some light strengthening exercises.

To avoid unintentionally causing additional damage, any physical therapy exercises for whiplash should be done under the watchful eye of a professional.

The goal of therapy at this stage is to get your muscles back to functioning as normally as possible and avoid as much long-term damage as you can.

Chronic Stage

The chronic stage of whiplash begins approximately two weeks after the incident occurred. At this time, the manual therapy, stretching, and strengthening is intensified. The therapist will approach your therapy with the goal of improving flexibility and range of motion.

In general, you can expect to need 4 to 6 weeks to heal from muscular injuries and 8 to 12 weeks for soft tissue injuries to heal. The actual healing time varies from person to person.

While it can be frustrating to deal with physical pain for this long, seeking the help of a physical therapist can help to reduce recovery time and give you the best changes of returning to full functionality. It’s also important to seek treatment as early as possible. Getting proper care during the acute and sub-acute phases will greatly improve your chances of a full recovery.

Physical Therapy Methods for Treating Whiplash

When you take the time to learn more about physical therapy (PT), it’s easy to see why it’s so effective for treating whiplash. There are two different types of PT that are commonly used for whiplash: passive and active.

Passive Treatments

Passive treatments are exactly what they sound like – treatments that don’t require any activity on the part of the patient. Since whiplash is usually very painful, especially in the early stages, it’s common to start with only passive treatment and then later graduate to active methods. Three common passive treatments include deep tissue massage, hot/cold therapy, and ultrasound.

Deep tissue massage uses direct pressure and friction to target muscle tension. This can help loosen up muscles, tendons, and ligaments, which gives them the best chances to heal quickly.

Hot/Cold Therapy is a method physical therapists use to improve the body’s healing process. Heat helps to relax the muscles, improves circulation, and brings more oxygen and healing nutrients to the affected area.

Cold therapy slows down your circulation. This reduces muscle spasms, decreases inflammation, and can lower your pain. Alternating between the two is one of the most effective ways to improve healing.

Note: When the injury first occurs, you can do this yourself. First use ice for 24 to 48 hours to bring down the inflammation, then alternate between heat and cold until you can get in to see a doctor or physical therapist.

Ultrasound uses sound waves sent deep into the muscle to create a gentle heat. This improves circulation, reduces muscle spasms, stiffness, swelling, cramping, and pain.

Active Treatments

When you’re ready, your therapist will show you how to do active exercises that will aid in your recovery. This is the part where you start working on range of motion and regaining strength. The exercises you’ll do will be tailored to your physical abilities and updated depending on how you’re healing.

As you return to work and daily activities, your physical therapist will also provide advice about everything from how to improve your posture to reduce pain to how to design an ergonomic workplace. By the time your therapy is completed, you should be able to return to your normal life with little to no residual pain. While each person’s recovery is different, this is the ultimate goal.

Need Physical Therapy for Whiplash? We Can Help!

If you’re plagued with neck pain, there’s no reason to suffer! Now that you know how physical therapy for whiplash can help, it’s time to experience it for yourself.

Contact us today to schedule a complimentary appointment.

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