Whiplash is a neck strain or sprain that's caused by a sudden jerking motion of the head, usually seen after a person is in a car accident. (Doctors and lawyers may refer to whiplash as acceleration flexion-extension neck injury or cervical hyperextension injury.) Whiplash injuries can include damage to the joints between the vertebrae, discs, ligaments, muscles, or nerve roots. While most cases of whiplash heal with time, whiplash or whiplash-associated disorders (WAD) can sometimes lead to disability.
Some of the initial symptoms that are seen after experiencing whiplash include:
Symptoms from whiplash can be ongoing or manifest themselves long after the accident (sometimes called late whiplash syndrome). Common long-term consequences from whiplash include:
Other medical conditions that have been associated with individuals who have suffered from whiplash injuries include allergies (an immune-system disorder), breathing disorders, cardiovascular problems, digestive disorders, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and chronic pain syndrome.
The time it takes for symptoms to go away from a whiplash injury varies greatly by person. The majority of whiplash injuries heal within six weeks after the injury. However, there are 1/3 of people who report neck pain after ten years. Others have symptoms for the rest of their lives.
The initial level of pain that is felt within the first three weeks after the whiplash injury has been found to be a good indication of whether or not a person will recover; people who report severe pain have a significantly decreased chance of recovering fully. Those with preexisting conditions, such as neck pain, arthritis in the neck, and headaches, generally have longer recovery times or suffer long-term effects. And of those with deceased movement in their neck after the injury, up to 75% of those individuals are still disabled after one year. In addition, instability in the neck after injury increases your risk of re-injury in the future.
In order to receive Social Security Disability or SSI disability benefits for whiplash, you must show either that you:
Whether you qualify for disability in one of the above ways depends on your symptoms and how they limit you. For whiplash, most people's symptoms involve neck pain or spinal involvement. For information on getting disability for these musculoskeletal symptoms, see our article on disability for neck pain and neck problems and disability for soft tissue injuries.
Other common symptoms from whiplash, such as headaches and chronic fatigue, are not included in the Social Security blue book, but you may be able to qualify for disability because your limitations make it impossible for you to work. (Visit the above links to learn more.)
Other less commonly related conditions, such as anxiety, allergies, breathing disorders, cardiovascular problems, and digestive disorders, may qualify you for benefits under the appropriate listings for those conditions. (Visit the above links to learn more.)
In order to receive Social Security or SSI disability benefits, you must be expected to be disabled for at least one year. With whiplash injuries, many symptoms do not last for at least a year. If your whiplash injury occurred in the last few months, Social Security will likely anticipate that your problems will dissipate within a few months and deny your claim. If you are still experiencing severe symptoms after nine to twelve months, you have a better chance of getting approved for disability benefits. If you are denied benefits even though you've had debilitating symptoms for a year, contact a disability lawyer.
If Social Security approves you for benefits based on your whiplash or neck impairment, you will have continuing disability reviews every few years to determine if you continue to be disabled.
For more information, see our article on getting disability benefits after a car accident.