Background To evaluate the life-time prevalence of self reported whiplash injury and the relationship to chronic musculoskeletal complaints (MSCs) and headache in a large unselected adult population. Methods Between 1995 and 1997, all inhabitants 20 years and older in Nord-Trondelag county in Norway were invited to a comprehensive health survey. Out of 92,936 eligible for participation, a total of 59,104 individuals (63.6%) answered the question about whiplash injury (whiplash). Among these, 46,895 (79.3%) responded to the questions of musculoskeletal complaints and headache. Results The total life-time prevalence of self reported whiplash injury was 2.9%, for women 2.7% and for men 3.0%. There was a significant association between self reported whiplash injury and headache (OR = 2.1; 95% CI 1.8-2.4), and chronic MSCs (OR = 3.3; 95% CI 2.8-3.8), evident for all ten anatomical sites investigated. The association was most pronounced for those with a combination of headache and chronic MSC for both men (OR = 4.8; 95% CI 3.6-6.2) and women (OR = 5.2; 95% CI 3.7-7.1). Conclusions Subjects with self reported whiplash injury had significantly more headache and musculoskeletal complaints than those without, and may in part be due to selective reporting. The causal mechanism remains unclear and cannot be addressed in the present study design.