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How Physical Therapy Can Help with Whiplash After a Car Accident

Whiplash after a car accident

Living with any type of pain is never enjoyable, but neck pain after a car accident can be especially debilitating. It’s only when you can’t turn your head without excruciating pain — or turn it at all — that you realize how much you take a normal range of motion for granted. 

One of the most common causes of neck pain is car accident whiplash. Officials estimate that over one million people experience neck injuries in motor vehicle accidents every year, with more than 850,000 requiring medical treatment for them. 

Since whiplash is so common, and symptoms don’t always appear right away, many people ignore the pain until it reaches the point where it’s keeping them from their normal activities, disrupting their sleep, and generally making life miserable. Getting physical therapy for whiplash sooner rather than later can help keep this from happening.

Here, Bayside Physical Therapy, Chiropractic & Acupuncture, Queens’ trusted physical therapists, explain how this treatment can help maintain your quality of life after a crash. 

Whiplash: Beyond the Neck Brace 

For some people, the word “whiplash” conjures images from Hollywood, with unscrupulous individuals wearing unnecessary neck braces for non-existent neck injuries. While there are certainly those who exaggerate their pain and suffering for personal gain, legitimate whiplash injuries are very real and can be painful. 

Whiplash, or more accurately, whiplash-associated disorders (WAD), refers to how a neck injury occurs, not the injury itself. When you’re in a car accident, especially one where another vehicle hits the one you’re driving or riding in from behind, the impact can cause your head to snap backward quickly. This hyperextension causes the cervical vertebrae (the ones in your neck) to form an S shape.

When your head stops moving, it will snap forward again, hyperflexing the muscles in your neck. At the same time, your brain also moves back and forth inside your skull. All of these movements together cause the injuries that we collectively refer to as WAD. 

The most common symptoms of whiplash include:

  • Headache
  • Neck pain and stiffness
  • Back pain
  • Tingling or numbness in the shoulders and arms 
  • Dizziness and blurred vision
  • Fatigue 

Some people also develop somatic symptoms from whiplash injuries. These are psychological issues related to physical ailments and can include anxiety and depression, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, or stress-related physical issues like vomiting or headaches. 

What to Expect During Physical Therapy for Whiplash

Physical therapy for car accident whiplash can help you heal and restore normal function without pain. Whiplash from car accidents doesn’t always show up immediately; it can take weeks or months to realize that the collision actually caused an injury and that you need help. 

When you get physical therapy for whiplash, the therapist will customize a treatment plan based on your neck injuries, current pain levels, and goals. Your plan may include multiple techniques, including both passive and active treatment.

Passive Physical Therapy 

Passive physical therapy refers to treatments in which you don’t have to actively participate. When you have acute car accident whiplash that is causing excruciating pain, your therapy will likely consist of entirely passive approaches, like heat and ice therapy, massage, and acupuncture. 

The idea of passive physical therapy is to increase circulation to the soft tissue injuries in your neck to promote healing. Treatments also help reduce tension and encourage the muscles to relax, which reduces pain. 

Active Physical Therapy 

Active physical therapy incorporates exercises and stretches to improve muscle strength and stability and restore your range of motion. These exercises also help improve posture and ergonomics, so you can perform your daily activities without risking further injury or discomfort. 

How Physical Therapy Supports Whiplash Recovery 

Most doctors believe that patients with WAD recover within a few months with minimal intervention. However, studies show that about 50% of people with whiplash continue to have pain a year after their car accidents when they don’t receive treatment. That research also shows that the best results come from a treatment program involving exercise and mobilization, i.e., physical therapy.    

In fact, the effectiveness of physical therapy directly contradicts the most common treatment for whiplash (at least what most people assume is the most common treatment), the cervical collar or neck race. Wearing a neck brace for whiplash can actually worsen symptoms and make the pain last longer. Ultimately, the sooner you begin exercising the neck muscles with supervision and direction from a physical therapist, the sooner you’ll recover from whiplash

Make an Appointment at Bayside Physical Therapy, Chiropractic & Acupuncture


No matter when the pain from WAD appears — hours or weeks after the accident —  or how severe it is, make an appointment to see a physical therapist at Bayside Physical Therapy, Chiropractic & Acupuncture right away to keep the symptoms from getting worse. 

We specialize in car accidents and work-related injuries and can answer all your questions about what to expect, let you know how long you should go to physical therapy after a car accident, and what you can do to reduce symptoms and stay pain-free. Our doctors accept most insurance plans, including workers’ compensation, no-fault, and PIP (personal injury protection), and same-day appointments may be available.

Schedule your consultation by calling 718-229-4878.

FAQs About Physical Therapy for Whiplash

Do I need physical therapy for whiplash?

Doctors usually recommend physical therapy for patients with neck pain and stiffness that doesn’t get better on their own in a few weeks. If you aren’t sleeping well, can’t turn your head, or have constant pain, PT can help.

How can I recover from whiplash injuries quickly?

Resting, applying heat and ice, and taking over-the-counter medications for pain can reduce symptoms, but staying active and carefully stretching and strengthening your neck with the help of a physical therapist will speed recovery.

Why does whiplash get worse over time?

Being in a crash floods your nervous system with adrenaline, which can mask car accident whiplash for hours and keep you from seeking pain-relieving treatment. Immobilizing your neck with a brace or simply avoiding excess movement worsens stiffness and weakens muscles, increasing discomfort.