The Link between our Nerves and Whiplash

 In Back and Neck Pain

We’ve all heard of “whiplash” and the alarming signals associated with it that go on in your body. It is not a fun thing to experience, and odds are you did not plan for it, but it happened due to an unfortunate event such as a car accident. The choice is yours whether you want to be mad, frustrated and dwell on the issue or you can move onwards and upwards. Through history it has been shown that patients who accept the fact that they have been in a car accident and choose to move on with their lives do better than those who stay mad, upset and resentful. If you have chosen to accept the injury and move on then it is now time for you to work through the physical and emotional recovery following the accident. This is where your physiotherapist can assist you on your road to recovery.

Keep in mind that you own both your neck and your pain. Your doctors, physiotherapists and your friends and family are there to help you, but you need to take control. With knowledge and effort, you will be able to do this; by doing this, you’ll help yourself.

What is Whiplash? 

The term “whiplash” is the mechanism whereby your neck, due to the accident, undergoes sudden movement. Even though our muscles and joints in our neck are designed for movement, they do not like sudden movement. It is similar to an ankle sprain, which may take a few weeks to desensitise to the pain and calm the nerves to assist in the healing process.

The Nervous System

Your nervous system plays an important role of informing your brain if there is anything going on in your body. The nervous system is a complex network of nerves and specialised cells that transmit signals between different parts of your body including your feet, legs, back, arms and neck. It is basically the body’s electrical wiring that works as an alarm system.

When there is danger in the body, such as whiplash, the nerves increase electrical activity and alarm the body by sending lots of danger messages to your spinal cord and eventually to your brain. Your brain then knows there is danger and action is required. This may lead to walking awkwardly, avoiding certain movements or even producing a lot of stress. Therefore the brain produces pain in your neck and/or upper back where you experienced the trauma. Since you have been alerted of the pain you then want to take care of the situation to calm your nerves.

Nerves have sensors

Your nerves have different sensors to protect and notify you of any changes in your life. Some key sensors that you may recognise are temperature, stress, movement, immunity and blood flow. In the case of neck pain following your accident, your nerves increased their sensitivity to protect you. This is a perfectly normal response as the sensors are constantly updating based on your environment.

Your nerves need 3 things to perform at their best: space, movement and blood. 

  1. SPACE: Since your nerves travel through small holes around your muscles and other tissues through your body it is important to maintain enough space for them to navigate through. When these spaces are narrowed or shut down due to swelling and inflammation, the nerve becomes sensitive and irritated. For example a common symptom is to experience arm pain in addition to the neck pain. With early intervention to assist the healing process, medication, gentle movement and time, the spaces will open back and pain will begin to ease.
  1. MOVEMENT: Nerves are meant to slide and glide, so when they get irritated it affects their ability to move smoothly. This can then hinder your ability to move making your nerve sensors even more sensitive. Thus, it is important for early, gentle and frequent movement of the neck, upper back, arms and body to assist the nerves in gliding and sliding more easily to help with pain. Essentially, any type of movement will help you on the track to faster recovery.
  1. BLOOD: About 25% of all the blood and oxygen in your body is used by your nerves. The discomfort that you feel when you are not moving enough may be due to the fact that your nerves do not have enough blood around it. Hence the reason why it is a good decision to include some form of aerobic exercise such as walking, biking or swimming to help calm your nerves by providing it with enough blood and oxygen. Remember that exercise promotes blood flow.

In Summary

Understanding whiplash and the role your nerves have on your body is important for your road to recovery. Just remember that you are not alone and your experiences are a normal part of healing. Your nervous system is your built in alarm to keep you safe and over time the nerve sensitivity will decrease. There are definitely certain steps you can take to recover faster and it begins with you taking the initiative to seek the right help to get better.

By visiting your doctor or physiotherapist they can help answer any questions you may have. And by having a good understanding of what is happening to the nerves in your body and how it is affecting you both physically and mentally you know you are on the right path to recovery. Recovery requires you to stay calm and keep moving through exercises and walking. This is where your local physiotherapist can assist you to clarify any concerns and provide you with a tailored exercise program to manage your whiplash.

Hopefully this gives you an insight into the large impact that nerves can have on your body following a whiplash injury.

Natasha Chan (APAM)


Natasha Chan POGO Gold Coast physio


  1. Louw, Adriaan. (2012). Whiplash An Alarming Message From Your Nerves. Neuroscience Education for Whiplash Patients. International Spine and Pain Institute, USA.
  2. Motor Accidents Authority, Guidelines for the Management of Whiplash Associated Disorders. Sydney, 2001.
  3. Science, Live. “Nervous System: Facts, Function & Diseases”. Live Science. Retrieved 15 June 2016 from
  4. State Insurance Regulatory Authority. Motor Accident (CTP) Insurance. “Acute Whiplash” Retrieved 15 June 2016 from

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