Does whiplash cause herniated discs

Dr. Sebastian Lattuga
Rockville Centre, NY
Yes, whiplash can cause herniated discs. Herniated discs can be caused by high-energy injuries such as motor vehicle accidents or low energy injuries such as twisting or turning one's head abruptly.
Dr. Douglas Slaughter
Mesa, AZ
Whiplash is a compilation of symptoms, which usually include headaches, neck pain, and upper extremity symptoms that are not easily corroborated by imaging studies. This usually occurs from flexion/extension injury, which happens in motor vehicle accidents. This syndrome does not cause herniated discs.
Dr. Kambiz Hannani
Los Angeles, CA
It is not common for whiplash injuries to cause a herniated disc. However, disc herniations can occur with high-speed accidents, in which case significant problems can ensue. Occasionally, disc herniations can worsen when an underlying disc herniation is present. In this case, significant arm pain may occur. Finally, whiplash can also cause significant neck pain and arm pain by injuring the facet joints.
Dr. Mark Testaiuti
Haddonfield, NJ
It may. This is a "muti-system" injury causing strain / pain to muscles and ligaments in addition to possibly the discs themselves.
Dr. Jeffrey C. Wang
Los Angeles, CA
Whiplash is a separate entity which typically describes a set of symptoms that occur after an injury to the neck region. A disc can become herniated during the injury which adds to the symptoms. Although they can occur together, they are considered separate entities.
Dr. Robert S. Pashman
Los Angeles, CA
Whiplash refers to a sprain or strain of the muscles in the neck. This occurs when there is a sudden flexion and extension of the neck. A disc that is bulging or predisposed to herniation may become herniated at the time of trauma.
Dr. Theodore A. Belanger
Charlotte, NC
Whiplash injury is technically a totally different problem than a herniated disc. It is possible that a single traumatic event may cause whiplash or disc herniation or both, but a person with an isolated whiplash injury that initially involves only a muscular neck injury is not more likely to develop a disc herniation at a later time.
Dr. Joseph Alexander
Winston-Salem, NC
Whiplash is a condition that can occur following certain types of accidents, particularly motor vehicle accidents. The exact events associated with whiplash are still not completely understood, although research continues to help physicians better understand the processes involved. Whiplash can be considered a type of cervical strain that is caused by the head moving rapidly back and forth, such as can occur when someone is rear-ended. When a patient has persistent neck or arm pain following an accident and a MRI is done, it is not unusual to find evidence of a herniated disc. However, since we know that up to one-third of patients can have a herniated disc with no symptoms, it is impossible in most circumstances for the treating physician to be certain that that herniated disc actually occurred during that particular motor vehicle accident. Patients and insurance companies would like their physicians to be able to state with certainty that an accident did or did not cause the herniated disc, but this often is not the case.
Dr. B. Theo Mellion
Carbondale, IL
Whiplash is a constellation of symptoms and not a true structural abnormality. There are a number of things we think contribute to a "whiplash" injury, stretching of the muscles or injury to the nerves that supply the muscles. Someone could have a whiplash injury with pain and disability without a true disruption of the disc or the spinal element. So a whiplash injury itself does not have to necessarily involve the spine but it can involve the supporting elements of the spine.
Dr. Randy Davis
Glen Burnie, MD
Whiplash is a phenomenon that happens frequently after patients who have automobile accidents where they get a rapid and often violent flexion and extensions of their neck. This frequently can cause tears in the ligaments or fibers of the disc, which can cause pain. The ultimate culmination of this can be herniated disc in some patients although it is not always the case.
Dr. Kevin Yoo
Escondido, CA
Whiplash or trauma does not usually cause discs in the neck to herniate. What is more likely to happen is that the already non-symptomatic disc bulge or herniation that a trauma sufferer already has becomes more severe or symptomatic after a whiplash injury. Discs in the neck most commonly herniate when an already weakened and/or aged disc simply endures a normal movement, such as an upward motion of the arm. For instance, some people have developed a disc herniation in their neck by reaching up for the soap in the shower.
Dr. John Peloza
Dallas, TX
A whiplash injury is a specific type of injury to the neck. It is basically a flexion/extension injury to the neck and can cause a herniated disc in the neck, or even just a tear within the wall of the disc becomes painful. The mechanism of injury in a whiplash is specific. As a person sits in the car, the trunk of the body is closely associated with the seat. However, the head and neck are generally not supported and act as a free body. As another car hits the rear of the initial car, the initial car is thrown forward with rapid acceleration. The trunk of the body goes with the seat and car rapidly forward. The unsupported head and neck, however, do not accelerate as quickly as the body does. Therefore, the head and neck go into extension. This can cause compression on some elements of the cervical spine and tension on other elements of the spine. It can also cause soft tissue injury to a number of structures, in addition to the discs. As the car slows down, the trunk of the body still attached to the seat slows down as well; however, the head and neck continue to accelerate forward. The head and neck do not stop at the same time as the trunk of the body does and, therefore, a flexion injury is caused to the cervical spine. Again, this can damage the structures of the cervical spine and can cause pain.
Dr. Dennis G. Crandall
Mesa, AZ
No. Whiplash is a muscular injury.
Dr. Brian Subach
Atlanta, GA
Whiplash is technically a muscular strain injury which does not damage the discs or cause herniations.
Dr. David S. Baskin
Houston, TX
It certainly can. The most common whiplash injury is a stretching and/or tearing of the ligaments, but a herniation can be produced by a whiplash type injury.
Dr. Rick Sasso
Indianapolis, IN
Whiplash is an interesting term. What that implies is neck pain after a motor vehicle accident. And, although we all sort of understand what the term whiplash means - we understand, "Oh, that's a car accident and you have neck pain after it," we don't really understand the biomechanics and what exactly happens when you get hit from behind and your neck goes into a significant amount of flexion and extension, sort of like a ball on top of a spring. As that ball has a lot of momentum, it has got some heavy weight to it, that spring goes through a bunch of gyrations. And it can cause all sorts of problems from simple strains and sprains, like we just talked about, to actual tears in the disc or tears in the capsule or covering of the little joints in the neck. Most of the time a whiplash injury doesn't cause any significant problems, like a disc herniation, but it certainly can. That initiation of that degeneration actually may lead to a disc herniation farther down stream in the future.
Dr. Timothy C. Ryken
Iowa City, IA
"Whiplash" is a generic term for the sudden neck injury often associated with a motor vehicle accident. While in rare cases, this type of injury can result in a herniated disc, the majority of "whiplash" cases will have normal radiographs.
Dr. Daniel Resnick
Madison, WI
A whiplash injury to the cervical spine can cause damage to the muscular or ligamentous structures of the spine. If the whiplash does injure the annulus fibrosis of the disc, this can be a causal factor contributing to a herniated disc of the neck. It is extremely unlikely however that a whiplash injury would cause a herniated disc in a previously normal disc. The more common situation is that somebody already has significant degenerative disease of their spine and is involved in some sort of traumatic incident which exacerbates their preexisting symptoms.
Dr. Mark R. McLaughlin
Princeton, NJ
Whiplash usually refers to a muscular injury to the neck. This is most often seen after a car accident where a person's neck is forced rapidly backward and then forward. This typically results in muscular strain or tears that cause pain and neck spasm. While whiplash itself does not cause disc herniation, the mechanism or injury (rapid neck extension then flexion) can cause herniated discs.

The commentary above recounts the experiences of these physicians. Medtronic invited them to share their stories candidly. Keep in mind that results vary; not every patient's response is the same. Talk with your doctor to learn more about any products that are mentioned above.

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Published: May 04, 2007
Updated: April 19, 2010