It is no secret that cars, while tremendously helpful tools, are dangerous vehicles. One doesn’t need to have experienced a car accident to know that wearing a seatbelt cannot eliminate the damage caused by being impacted from behind while on the road. Car accidents are an epidemic that cause serious injury and death every year, and one highly common result is car-related whiplash.
What Is Whiplash?
Whiplash describes an injury to the neck caused by its rapid back-and-forth movement. It is named for how similar the movement—usually caused by an external force—resembles that of a cracking whip. Whiplash can be caused by car accidents, particularly rear-end car accidents as we will explore, but it can also result from sports-related injuries, physical abuse, or other physical trauma.
As many as 3 million Americans sustain whiplash injuries every year, and about half of that number suffer chronic whiplash pain. Whiplash injuries account for more than 65% of all bodily injury claims, and the trauma—car-related whiplash or otherwise—can increase the risk of chronic pain in the shoulders and neck.
The Mechanics of Car-Related Whiplash
While not all whiplash cases arise after a rear-end vehicular collision, it is the most common cause. In fact, although rear-end collisions only account for about 15% of all vehicular accidents, they are responsible for 92% of patients who seek treatment for injuries sustained after a car crash.
As a general rule, rear-end collisions cause significantly more cervical spinal damage than do frontal collisions, and the extent of personal injury has no correlation with the level of vehicular damage. In fact, the majority of whiplash injuries occur at crash speeds less than 12 miles per hour, when people are not paying attention or driving too quickly in parking lots.
As car-related whiplash is so common, its mechanics are a subject of acute study. The general understanding is that a rear-end collision forces the neck into rapid hyper-flexion (bending forwards) followed by hyper-extension (bending backwards), though some research has indicated that the process is reversed: a force from the rear thrusts the head into a position of acute extension, causing the neck musculature to overcompensate, while sudden deceleration results in acute hyper-flexion of the neck.
In either case, the acute hyper-flexion part of the mechanism produces the greatest damage in incidents of car-related whiplash. The extreme and abrupt forward curvature causes ligaments and muscles in the neck to tear, which in turn can result in edema and hemorrhage and produce pain in the soft tissues radiating from the cervical spine. Nerve root compression is also a risk.
Concussion may occur during the flexion phase, as can other pain in the occipital region. The violence of car-related whiplash can cause the torsion of the brain stem, compression of the greater occipital nerve, or the avulsion of soft tissues on or near the occipital ridge.
Common Symptoms of Whiplash
Symptoms of car-related whiplash may include pain or stiffness in the neck, limited range of motion, fatigue, dizziness, headaches, or tenderness or tingling in the upper arms. Concussion is also a distinct possibility, leading to headache, mental confusion, vertigo, or loss of consciousness.
As mentioned above, whiplash can increase incidence of chronic pain in the shoulders, neck, and head. Concussion symptoms can last more than two years, and they and other whiplash symptoms can lead to disability. Symptoms often appear months after the initial incident, so it is wise to consult a chiropractor or doctor directly after an accident to look for damage that is not immediately apparent.
If you have experienced head or neck trauma or an accident in which whiplash is a possibility, seek care immediately, even if no symptoms are evident. Sometimes treatments may include the implementation of a neck brace, though these must be used with medical discretion to prevent atrophy of the neck musculature.
Progressive movement with and without support usually proves beneficial, as do the intermittent application of heat and ice and physical therapy with both passive motion and intermittent cervical traction. Elastic ligaments are less likely to tear during whiplash than ligaments that are more rigid or stiff, so keeping ligaments limber through exercise is a good preventative for the worst of whiplash symptoms.
At Utah Sports and Wellness, we offer frequency specific microcurrent (FSM) and massage therapy to alleviate the pain caused by whiplash. FSM uses low-level electrical current as part of a cell signaling process to correct cell membrane receptor configurations. It can help mitigate pain, as can professional massage therapy. If you have general or car-related whiplash or think you might, give us a call today to get the treatment you need.