The Spine Research Institute of San Diego estimates that as many as three million whiplash injuries occur in the United States every year. Additionally, whiplash is a common source of chronic neck pain, with as much as 45% of people with chronic neck pain attributing their pain to a past whiplash injury.

What is whiplash?

When the neck is suddenly or violently jolted, first in one direction and then in another, it causes a whip-like motion. This can cause sprains or strains to the structures in the neck by stretching these structures beyond their usual limits. The muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerves can all be affected. In some cases, the discs in the vertebrae of the neck can be torn, leading to a disc herniation. Among people with osteoporosis, a whiplash injury can even cause fractures to the vertebrae.

Motor vehicle accidents are the most common cause of whiplash injuries. However, it can also occur as a result of sports injuries, work injuries, or falls.

What are the symptoms of whiplash?

Pain and stiffness in the neck are the most common symptoms associated with whiplash. The pain is typically worsened by turning the head. More than two thirds of people with this condition also experience headaches at the base of the skull. It’s also possible for the pain and stiffness to extend into the shoulders, arms, upper back, and upper chest. Irritability, fatigue, or difficulty concentrating can even occur as a result of whiplash.

Whiplash might also be accompanied by some concussion-like symptoms, including:

  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Blurred vision
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Vertigo
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Jaw pain

Quite commonly, symptoms don’t develop for two to 48 hours after the injury. Once symptoms have developed, they may resolve quickly, but some people continue to experience symptoms of this condition for weeks, months, or years.

The specific structures affected by an injury may play a part in determining how long the symptoms will last. The Whiplash Prevention Campaign notes:

“Some scientists believe that the cause of long-term whiplash symptoms is due to damage of nerves and that the cause of short-term pain may be minor injury to the muscles.”

A recent study at Northwestern Medicine has found that large amounts of fat in the neck muscles after a whiplash injury suggests that a person will experience chronic pain, disability, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the injury. This fat has nothing to do with the person’s body shape or size. Rather, the fat that infiltrates the neck muscles indicates muscle atrophy. The whiplash victims who have this increased fat in the neck muscles also have an increased amount of muscle fat in the lower legs.

According to the study author, this suggests that an injury to the spinal cord has occurred. The exact type of injury is unknown, but the study does show that whiplash does not always cause a set array of symptoms with a common severity. Instead, injury can vary from the mild to the severe, and each case should be treated as unique. The precise magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques used to screen the muscles of victims can show the increased muscle fat in the neck as soon as one to two weeks after the initial injury.

Whiplash treatment

Whiplash treatment is usually quite simple and straightforward.

Unless some sort of serious injury requiring immobilization has occurred, one of the most important parts of whiplash treatment is to stay active. Moving and staying active, within reason, are key to helping the injury heal. It might also be good to ask a physician or therapist to devise a stretching or exercise program to support the best possible long-term outcome.

To control any pain or muscle spasms that accompany an injury, ice or heat can be used. Electrical stimulation or ultrasound therapies, used in conjunction with an exercise or stretching program, can also provide some relief. In addition to these, a chiropractor might be able to provide some relief from neck pain through spinal manipulation or mobilization. If pain and stiffness from whiplash are still persistent, ask a physician which medications are okay to take.

Reduce your risks

There are several steps that can help reduce the risk of a whiplash injury.

Car accidents are the most common cause of injuries, so the best way to prevent it is to take precautions in the car. Wear a seatbelt, and make sure that the seat and headrest (also called a head restraint) are adjusted properly. Adjusting your seat and head restraint are one of the most effective and easy ways to reduce the risk of whiplash, but a 2002 study in Canada found that 86% of drivers’ head restraints were adjusted incorrectly.

To adjust your seat and head restraint, follow these steps:

  1. Keep the seat inclined at less than a 20 degree angle. This will help you stay in your seat during a rear-end collision.
  2. Make sure the head restraint is level with or above the level of your head. You can set your hand flat on your head to check that the restraint is at the correct level. This is a very important step, since a head restraint that’s too low might actually contribute to or worsen a whiplash injury in the event of an accident.
  3. Keep the head restraint close to the back of your head. About two inches is a good distance.

Following these steps will help to keep your body supported and aligned in case of an accident. This will reduce the risk of whiplash or, at least, reduce the severity of an injury. Also, newer cars have more effective head restraints, so if you’re thinking about trading in your current car, take this into consideration. In 1995, 82% of head restraints were graded as poor, but in 2005, this number had dropped to just 6%.

Whiplash can also occur during sports, amusement park rides, falls, or other types of incidents. To prevent or lessen whiplash injuries in these cases, use all proper safety equipment and follow instructions. During sports, this means using helmets and pads when applicable. If you go on an amusement park ride, use the correct restraints and follow any safety instructions. Keeping your neck healthy by doing regular stretches and exercises may also help prevent whiplash.

Additionally, the best way to keep an injury from becoming chronic is to get prompt treatment. If you begin to experience any symptoms after an accident, fall, or other incident, see your physician or pain doctor as soon as possible.

Have you ever experienced a whiplash injury?

Image by Aidan Jones via Flickr

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