Whiplash Injuries in Sports

It is well known that most cases of neck pain after whiplash injuries occur in traffic accidents, where a vehicle is most often struck from behind or receives a side impact. On the one hand, the motor industry has taken steps to reduce the risk of whiplash for drivers, even those involved in dangerous motorsports. However, on the other hand, in the case of many contact sports, the incidence of serious neck injuries, including whiplash injury, remains very high.

Rugby, soccer, boxing and martial arts, even snowboarding and gymnastics, participating in any of these sports carries the risk of suffering a neck injury such as whiplash.

A closer look at whiplash

Whiplash broadly describes the rapid back and forth movement of the head, similar to the cracking of a whip, that results from an impact from the rear or side. This could happen during a particularly fierce rugby tackle or, more commonly, after a rear-end collision in a car. The danger of whiplash comes from the damage your body can take due to hyperextension and hyperflexion of the spine outside of its normal limits when struck by such dramatic forces.

Symptoms of whiplash

A whiplash victim can display a number of symptoms, the most common of which is neck pain and stiffness. Among the other symptoms you may experience after whiplash are:

  • swelling and tenderness in the neck
  • reduced movement or loss of movement in the neck
  • Headaches
  • Back pain
  • pain, numbness, or tingling in the arms and hands (paraesthesia)
  • muscle spasms
  • dizziness
  • tiredness
  • difficulty to swallow
  • blurry vision
  • Vertigo
  • tinnitus (ringing in the ears)

(NHS Options, 2009 ‘Symptoms of whiplash’)

Whiplash complications and recovery

The diagnosis and treatment of whiplash can be complex; in the case of sports injuries, more damage to other parts of the body can exacerbate the problem. Whiplash, along with many other sports injuries, is commonly treated with a course of physical therapy, and this can vary in duration depending on the severity of the injury. As with all serious injuries, a player will not be able to continue playing during the rehabilitation period. Both an injury and a period of absence can jeopardize a player’s sports career and, in the professional league, her source of income.

Whiplash injuries vary in severity and, as a result, so do recovery periods. According to the NHS, 60% of whiplash victims can recover in the first 4 weeks after the accident. However, in some cases, whiplash symptoms, particularly neck pain and stiff neck and associated back problems, can affect the victim for a few months after the injury and sometimes the pain can become chronic (long-term).

Prolonged pain affects daily tasks; it can seriously compromise work life and lead to anxiety and depression. Naturally, for an athlete, the implications of a debilitating illness are even more disturbing.

Rugby and american football

Neck, back, and shoulder injuries sustained during high-energy contact sports such as rugby and football are often the result of whiplash. In the same way that a passenger experiences a whiplash in a rear-end collision, where the spine supports hyperextension and hyperflexion outside its normal range, if a rugby player is hit by two players simultaneously from front and rear, the impact can cause the spine to undergo the same whiplash movement.

Boxing and martial arts

In addition to the impact of hard tackles in rugby and soccer, blows to the head can also occur in both sports. Boxing and martial arts also carry a high risk of getting hit to the head. In addition to a high incidence of concussions in sports like these, whiplash is a growing concern, particularly in the context of the adequacy of its safety regulations.

In an article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2005, researchers found that whiplash risks in mixed martial arts were comparable to those involved in rear-end collisions. However, they identified a worrisome discrepancy in security procedures to address these issues.

(Kochhar and. al., 2005, ‘Risk of cervical injuries …’ in BJSM)

Ice Hockey

Ice hockey players are at particular risk for head injury and, within the head, whiplash, due to the speed at which they travel on ice. The fact that an ice hockey player can reach a speed of around 40 km / h means that collisions between players can be considered in the same range as a low speed car accident. Considering the circumstances of a whiplash injury sustained by a rugby player who is approached by two players from both front and rear, it is not difficult to imagine the severity of the same collision at the high speed achieved on ice.

Gymnastics and cheerleaders

When you think about the forces and speeds involved in sports like rugby and soccer, it is surprising to know that female gymnasts actually have the highest injury rate of all female athletes. Complex exercises and sudden maneuvers often place vulnerable parts of the body like the cervical spine, the region of the spine where the whiplash injury occurs, under the kind of stress the body is not used to.

Performing movements at height is particularly dangerous for gymnasts and cheerleaders, because a fall can result in the head snapping violently backwards, causing a whiplash injury. The same can happen if your head hits the ground so hard that your neck snaps back. Whiplash is a serious injury for any athlete and is a very real danger.


Falls while snowboarding can easily lead to whiplash, even at low speeds. This is due to the magnitude of the forces on the head and neck during an impact, where what is known as G Force it has the effect of making your head weigh many times its usual weight.

During a low speed collision of around 6 mph, your head can be subjected to 6 G of force, giving you the effect of weighing around 36 kg. Given the magnitude of such forces, it is not surprising that the delicate cervical spine is overstretched under pressure and whiplash.