Whiplash is a neck strain or sprain that's caused by a sudden jerking motion of the head—most often seen after a person has been in a car accident. Doctors (and lawyers) sometimes refer to whiplash as "acceleration flexion-extension neck injury" or "cervical hyperextension injury."
Whiplash injuries can include damage to the neck and/or cervical spine and can involve any or all of the following:
While most cases of whiplash heal with time, whiplash or whiplash-associated disorders (WAD) can sometimes lead to severe, chronic neck pain and disability. Here's what you need to know about getting Social Security disability for whiplash.
The symptoms of whiplash can begin immediately, but they might not appear until a day or two after the accident that caused the injury. The initial symptoms of whiplash can include any of the following:
Symptoms from whiplash can be ongoing. And they can sometimes appear long after the accident (sometimes called late whiplash syndrome). Common long-term consequences from whiplash include:
The time it takes for the symptoms of a whiplash injury to go away varies greatly by person. The majority of whiplash injuries heal within six weeks after the injury. But about one-third of people who experience whiplash report neck pain after ten years. Others have symptoms for the rest of their lives.
The amount of pain you have within the first three weeks after the whiplash injury can be a good indication of whether or not you'll recover. People who report severe pain are less likely to recover fully. And having certain preexisting conditions can lead to longer recovery times or suffer long-term effects, including conditions like:
About three-quarters of those with decreased movement in their neck after the injury are still disabled after a year.
There are a couple of theories about why pain sometimes lasts a long time following whiplash, including that:
In either case, physical therapy following whiplash can help the strained muscles recover in a way that can usually prevent permanent issues. But that's not always the case.
How long you should be off work after a whiplash injury will depend on several factors, such as:
If your whiplash symptoms prevent you from performing your essential work duties and there's no reasonable accommodation that will allow you to do your job, you probably won't be able to return to work until your symptoms improve.
Learn more about when taking time off work is a reasonable accommodation.
Whiplash isn't included in the list of impairments that the Social Security Administration (SSA) uses to automatically qualify you for disability benefits (called the "Bluebook"). But lots of people qualify for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits for medical conditions that aren't listed in the Bluebook (more on this below).
Ongoing symptoms of whiplash, like severe back and neck pain, can qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If your neck or back pain is an ADA-protected disability, you should be entitled to reasonable accommodations at work, and that might make it possible for you to continue working.
If you can't work because of your whiplash symptoms, you might also qualify for disability benefits under your state's temporary disability insurance (TDI) program. If your state doesn't have a TDI program, you might be able to get paid while you're off work through your company's short-term disability (STD) insurance and/or long-term disability (LTD) insurance benefit programs.
If you apply for SSDI or SSI disability benefits for whiplash, Social Security will need to see your medical records from your hospital and doctor visits, along with evidence from X-rays or MRIs. Whether you qualify for disability benefits depends on the information contained in your medical records and how your symptoms limit your ability to work.
Social Security will approve your application for disability benefits only if you can show that you either:
The Blue Book doesn't have any specific listings for neck pain, but it does include a listing for compromise of a spinal nerve root (listing 1.15). If the impact from a car accident, with or without arthritis, has caused compression of a nerve root, you could qualify under that listing. Learn more about getting disability for musculoskeletal injuries that cause neck pain and neck problems and soft tissue injuries.
Other common symptoms from whiplash, such as headaches and chronic fatigue, aren't included in Social Security's listings either. You might still qualify for disability if your pain or fatigue makes it impossible for you to work.
Some less commonly associated conditions might qualify you for benefits under the listings for those conditions, such as:
In order to receive Social Security or SSI disability benefits, you must be disabled and unable to work for at least one year. With whiplash injuries, many symptoms don't last for a year or more. Or if your symptoms do last that long, they might not be severe enough to prevent you from working and earning a living—what Social Security calls "substantial gainful activity" (SGA).
Applying for disability benefits for whiplash too soon can torpedo your claim. If your whiplash injury occurred in the last few months and you apply for benefits, Social Security will likely anticipate that your pain and limitations will disappear within a few months and will deny your claim.
You'll have a slightly better chance of getting approved for disability benefits if you're still experiencing severe symptoms after 9 to 12 months and you wait until then to apply for SSDI and/or SSI. Remember, you can't qualify for Social Security disability unless your condition has lasted (or is expected to last) at least a year.
If you're denied Social Security disability benefits even though you've had debilitating symptoms for a year or more, you can appeal. And you'll likely benefit from contacting a disability lawyer.
For more information, see our article on getting disability benefits after a car accident.
Updated March 23, 2023