Whiplash is a common neck injury that often occurs during rear-end automobile collisions, but it can also occur from other activities such as contact sports or amusement park rides. The head suddenly moves backward and then forward, causing tissue damage known as whiplash. These extreme motions push your neck muscles and ligaments beyond their normal range of motion, usually resulting in an acute sprain of the spinal ligaments and joints, most frequently in the C3- C6 vertebrae. Whiplash symptoms can occur immediately after the injury, or may develop only after a few days following the injury.

Whiplash injuries can be mild or severe. Symptoms may include neck pain and stiffness, headaches, pain in the shoulder or between the shoulder blades, dizziness, ringing in the ears, and blurred vision and may even cause difficulty concentrating, memory problems, irritability, sleep disturbances and fatigue. Most people recover from whiplash within 4-6 weeks, but for some people, whiplash injuries become chronic symptoms that can be extremely painful and disabling.

Western medical treatment typically begins with over-the-counter pain relievers and ice applied to the painful neck muscles to reduce swelling. If pain persists, prescription medications, massage therapy, and physiotherapy may be recommended, and possibly cortisone shots in more severe problems.

With whiplash, acupuncture is very helpful in preventing an acute problem from turning into a chronic problem. There are many factors which can contribute weakness or vulnerability in the neck when a trauma such as whiplash is experienced. Firstly, the neck has attributes of both flexibility and strength, two factors that conflict because the required flexibility of the neck has been gained at the expense of some strength, leaving the area naturally somewhat vulnerable.

Also, the neck is the part of the spine most likely to be exposed to wind and cold, both of which can lead to or aggravate pain or problems in the neck. Emotions such as stress and anger may also contribute to neck pain, as it is common for us to hold our tension in the neck and shoulders. Many important meridians pass through the neck on their way to and from the head, so internal imbalances in our body may also show up as symptoms in the neck area. All of these factors contribute to how well our body heals from whiplash, and whether or not this condition leads to a chronic problem.

Acupuncture can help to relieve inflammation and release the stiffness and tension of the neck, relieving the pain of whiplash usually within a few treatments. Additional treatments help to further strengthen the neck, improving circulation of energy and blood to the area, so that the neck is better able to heal the injury and recover fully.

Ice in the first 48 hours will help with the inflammation, but after that acupuncturists typically do not recommend icing, as we see the extreme cold as potentially aggravating to the pain and stiffness. Usually, heat is recommended instead in order to relax the muscles and promote circulation. Massage is also very helpful for neck injuries, particularly chronic disorders and acupuncture and massage complement each other very well.

A series of acupuncture treatments can typically help to resolve whiplash, though the exact number of treatments needed depends on a number of factors including how long the injury has been present as well as a person’s age and overall health. However, acupuncture offers real relief for whiplash sufferers and can help to minimize the neck’s vulnerability to future injury.

James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, downtown Kelowna, BC.

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