Concussion and Whiplash: Head or Neck Pain You Should Not Ignore

Evaluating for a concussion is tough business and they can happen anywhere, anytime. They are common occurrences in car crashes and sporting activities, but can even happen on the playground or the skating rink. Sometimes concussions are the result of domestic violence, assaults, freak accidents or where alcohol or other drugs were involved.

There are key signs to look for if you think someone may have a concussion.

For starters, being knocked unconscious is one clue.  But don’t get hung up on the passing out part. You don’t need to lose consciousness to be concussed.  That’s a myth that causes players to get back into sporting games after a hit which frequently leads to second-impact syndrome. This is when a second concussion occurs before the first one has healed properly.

What are other signs someone might have a concussion?

Dizziness, nausea, vomiting, head pain, light sensitivity, confusion and lightheadedness are all signs of concussion; however these symptoms can mimic other ailments, making brain injury harder to detect.

For instance, a football player in full gear practicing on a hot summer day who complains of nausea and dizziness may be experiencing heat exhaustion, low blood sugar or dehydration rather than being concussed. But coaches, parents, teachers, teammates, and friends be wary because these are the same warning signs of a concussion. Even if a player wasn’t hit hard, any tackle or jostle could cause injury to the brain or spine.

Who is responsible?

One campaign called Team Up Speak Up is led by the Concussion Legacy Foundation and fights the silence surrounding this mounting issue in sports. Their mission is to increase awareness around concussions and incite action in a significant way – by engaging the athletes themselves.  This pledge encourages athletes to say something to a team leader and report other players if they suspect they have a concussion. The idea here is that it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure safe sports participation and get athletes out of gameplay and onto the bench after being hit so as to not risk further damage or second concussion.

What can you expect when seeking medical attention?

At the Emergency Room or the doctor’s office, clinicians typically look to the head and focus solely on that aspect when a patient is believed to have a concussion. The thought process: It was a head injury after all. Surely, the pain is stemming from the head. Frequently they administer care or suggest treatment for head pain and nausea but may overlook other sources of your pain after an injury.

While it is good first measure to examine the head and skull for fractures and undergo imaging to ensure the brain’s not bleeding, it should be second measure then to scrutinize the neck.

Wait, whiplash?

Whiplash is often a source of pain that can cause damage lasting long after post-concussion symptoms have subsided. Depending on your positioning of your body and the impact that led to your concussion, whiplash can lead to some serious neck issues; ones that won’t resolve on their own. Similar to a concussion, even if you didn’t lose consciousness, that doesn’t mean you haven’t suffered whiplash injuries.

Whiplash is…

” … the acceleration-deceleration mechanism of energy transfer to the neck. The magnitude of the problem is great … at least one percent of the entire population will experience chronic pain due to whiplash.”

Olson, L. American Physical Therapy Association


Every body and brain is unique so the recovery timeline for post-concussion syndrome can vary wildly for each person. It can take anywhere from weeks to months to years to reclaim yourself after an brain injury…even if it was a ‘mild’ one.

My post-concussion syndrome treatment has been a long winding road leading me to walk many physical and mental avenues in search of relief. My care plan ranged from my primary care physician, to a neurosurgeon, to a neuropthomalagist, to a vestibular rehabilitation therapist, and most recently to a chiropractic doctor.

Nearly every medical professional I saw told me my persistent post-concussion symptoms were caused by my bruised brain and would simply require strong (and often sickening) pain medication and a whole bunch of time to heal. Rather than writhe in pain waiting for ‘time’ to fix me, I decided to keep searching for something I could do to speed up my recovery. I found this in the form of a chiropractic doctor. After one consultation, she ordered a series of neck x-rays which confirmed what I’d suspected all along.  My spine and neck had been flattened during my accident leaving my cervical vertebrae literally squashed sideways. Although my PCP, neurologist and E.R. doctors ordered CT scans of my head (I had three of these done) and even a CTA with IV contrast, all of them ignored the neck.

I have had two chiropractic sessions so far and already feel my head pain and pressure is less intense. The idea is that the body is a while unit so when one element is out of whack the rest of the body will follow suit.  With manual tissue and spinal manipulation, it could be possible to alleviate the debilitating neurological symptoms of PCS.

What is the main takeaway here?

Ultimately, the advice is this: be proactive and a catalyst in your own recovery. Many people suffer needlessly for months or even years without finding the right treatment plan. If you’re experiencing chronic headaches, dizziness, nausea, light sensitivity and more it’s possible that a neck misalignment could be an underlying cause. If your doctor is only ordering a scan of your head, you may want to suggest getting a neck scan as well.

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