Whiplash is medically known as Cervical Acceleration-Deceleration syndrome. As implied, the injury is caused by sudden, violent acceleration and deceleration of the neck. Depending on the direction of impact, your neck is rapidly flung forward, then backward; or from side to side in a lightning-quick motion, placing extreme stress on the joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerves inside the neck.
Whiplash injuries can be minor with little physical damage- to severe, with tearing of ligaments, muscle strains, and even vertebral fractures. Interestingly, the severity of pain experienced from a whiplash injury does not always correlate to the extent of the injury. One can have a very serious injury with little pain; or excruciating pain with little physical injury. This is why it is always important to be properly assessed after experiencing a whiplash injury, regardless of how innocuous it may feel.
Car accidents are the most common cause of whiplash injuries; particularly accidents during which your car is hit from behind. In general, the more severe the accident, the greater the trauma to your neck; however this is not always the case. Small fender benders in sturdy cars can cause significant injury as the car itself does not crunch up and absorb the forces, which are instead transferred through the seat into your neck.
- Uncontrolled neck motion from falling on a trampoline
- Blunt force trauma to the head
- A blow to the head during sports such as rugby or boxing
- Bungee jumping
- Roller coasters
- High impact activities where extreme acceleration-deceleration forces can be applied to the head and neck
What does it feel like?
The most common symptom of whiplash include:
- Neck pain and tenderness
- Neck stiffness and decreased range of motion
- Muscle spasms in the neck and upper trapezius area
Less commonly you may experience numbness or pins and needles in your arms and shoulders, dizziness, irritability, and tiredness. The symptoms of whiplash do not always start right away after the injury. Sometimes it can take 24 hours before you start to experience any discomfort, and the pain tends to get progressively worse for a couple of days after the accident.
- Extreme pain immediately after the injury
- Post traumatic stress disorder
- Being older in age
- Being female
In such cases, it is often necessary to receive treatment at a pain clinic or with a pain specialist, where a combination of psychotherapy, manual therapy, and prescription medication is usually recommended.
Whiplash Associated Disorders
There are many injuries that can be associated with whiplash that can complicate recovery time. Concussion, pinched nerves, shoulder injuries, and vertebral fractures are a few of the more serious injuries that can accompany whiplash. These concomitant injuries can greatly lengthen recovery time and require specific treatment by qualified professionals.
Treatment and Recovery Time
In most cases, whiplash injuries result in mild ligament sprains or muscle strains. In these cases, self-management is possible using icing, heat and specific exercises and stretches once any serious damage has been ruled out. Although many people think it is necessary to keep their neck still after a whiplash injury, keeping active and allowing your neck to move as normally as possible actually promotes blood flow and aids in the healing process.
Manual therapy can assist with pain relief and help speed the healing process using a combination of spinal manipulations and soft tissue techniques such a s trigger point therapy, dry needling, and massage. If necessary, your therapist may order an X-Ray of your neck to rule out compression fractures and/or assess the impact that your muscle spasm is having on the curve of your neck.
Sometimes anti-inflammatory and analgesic medication may be recommended to help reduce inflammation and aid pain relief.
Most often uncomplicated whiplash injuries heal within a couple of days to weeks, and usually by 3 months symptoms have completely resolved.
Take Home Message
Whiplash injuries are often traumatic, unpleasant and painful! While most of the time the injury itself is fairly mild and will heal completely, there are some very serious injuries that can occur with whiplash. Research has shown that waiting to seek treatment can also prolong symptoms and delay healing time, so it is recommended to go get yourself assessed as soon as possible after such an injury.
The stress and trauma experienced by the cause of the injury (i.e: a car accident) can itself add to the pain experience. It is important to look after your headspace as well as your body after an injury, especially one involving this type of unpleasant experience. Depending on how you handle stress, this may mean going to talk to someone, or simply taking a hot bath or doing some yoga. However you choose to deal with it, it is important to remember that many factors are involved in the creation of pain by your brain, all of which need to be considered in order to achieve full recovery.
Stay safe on the roads, always wear your seat belt and act fast if you ever find yourself at the end of a whiplash injury!
Move Well. Live Well.