How Long Does it Take to Heal From Whiplash for Injured Employees?

Whiplash might sound like a straightforward injury. However, for some people, it causes chronic pain that’s considered a medical mystery to this day. 

These injuries typically happen as a result of a rear-end automobile accident. But before cars were popular, whiplash sometimes happened in rear-end railroad accidents, and was known as “railway spine.”

Doctors couldn’t explain why these “railway spine” symptoms persisted back then, and doctors today aren’t much closer to knowing why patients sometimes experience longterm effects from whiplash. However, not all patients have chronic pain, and some recover in much more predictable ways. 

How long does it take to recover from whiplash? If your employee takes medical leave due to a whiplash injury, you might find yourself wondering this. In this guide, we’ll give you what you need to understand how long recovery might take — keep reading so you can plan ahead!

How Whiplash Injury Occurs

First, let’s take a look at what whiplash is and how it happens. You can’t prevent employees from getting injured when they’re not on the job, but this information might help you keep them safe while working. Keeping them safe also protects you from whiplash compensation claims — read more now.

Whiplash is a type of neck injury that happens when the head suddenly gets moved in any direction. Our bodies aren’t usually prepared for that kind of sudden movement, so it can cause us all kinds of problems.

Vehicle accidents often cause whiplash, even if they’re minor accidents that happened at slow speeds. However, any situation that causes the head to move suddenly can cause whiplash. The soft tissues of the neck, such as the tendons, get damaged due to the sudden motion.

Sometimes, whiplash also damages the neck joints themselves. Whiplash can range from minor to severe. It might cause mild pain, or it might actually impair the neck’s ability to move.

Whiplash Symptoms

Most of the time, the symptoms of whiplash develop over time. This can make it confusing both for doctors and for the person experiencing whiplash. 

Often, someone with whiplash will feel just fine immediately after the accident. They might feel a little bit of stiffness and pain, or they might feel nothing at all.

However, within hours or even days, the symptoms can get worse. Sometimes, the patient might wake up and suddenly find they can’t move their head at all.

Pain in the neck or upper back after an accident or another traumatic event usually signals whiplash first. However, people can have a wide variety of symptoms linked to whiplash. 

This can include throat problems such as a hoarse voice or difficulty swallowing. It might include muscle spasms in the affected area, or headaches and dizziness. Sometimes, the pain manifests in areas that aren’t the neck, but are connected to it, such as the arms.

It’s important to understand that these symptoms can be different for every person, and take time to develop. If an employee said they were fine right after an accident, but started having pain or strange symptoms later, they probably aren’t making it up. This is normal for whiplash. 

Whiplash Healing

It’s very important that your employees get proper treatment if they have this kind of injury. Luckily, most whiplash patients can make a full recovery and get back to work afterward.

The sooner your employee sees a medical professional, the faster they can heal. If there’s an accident at work, make sure to have everyone involved get seen by a doctor, even if they seem fine. That mild soreness might turn into severe whiplash later on.

Doctors use the symptoms to diagnose whiplash: there is no scan or test. They will also do a physical examination to check the affected area. 

Treatment for whiplash is simple: it usually just takes time. However, this can be bad news for employers who need their employees back at work as soon as possible. To speed up the process, doctors might use a soft brace (in serious cases). They can also provide medication to minimize pain and swelling.

Unless the whiplash is severe, most people heal faster by using their natural range of motion, rather than a brace. Physical therapy sometimes helps get the most from this mobility. 

How Long Does it Take to Recover from Whiplash?

Most whiplash patients should be able to recover in about six weeks, and no more than six months. However, sometimes the pain or other symptoms continue. If this goes on longer than six months, the patient might have chronic whiplash. 

Some factors will affect how long recovery takes. Injuries that were more painful initially tend to take longer to recover from. If the joints were affected and not just the soft tissues of the neck, this can also lead to longer recovery time.

Only a doctor can determine when someone with whiplash is able to go back to work. It depends in part on the job.

At highly physical jobs with a risk of reinjury, employees will need to take more time to heal fully. If it’s a stable desk job, a whiplash patient might be able to start working again before they’ve fully recovered.

You might need to put your employee on light duty so they can return to work sooner. However, it’s important to respect the medical suggestions of a doctor and to take their pain seriously. Employees who still experience debilitating pain long after an accident might seem to be lying, but chronic whiplash is actually fairly common. 

What To Do if Your Employee Has Whiplash

If one of your employees gets a whiplash injury, don’t start by asking “How long does it take to recover from whiplash?” The answer depends on how severe the injury is, so your first step should be encouraging them to get medical attention.

Want to prevent whiplash injuries from happening on the job in the first place? Don’t miss our guide to office safety here.

Adam Torkildson