The term “whiplash” was first used in 1928 to define an injury mechanism of sudden hyperextension followed by an immediate hyperflexion of the neck that results in damage to the muscles, ligaments and tendons – especially those that support the head. Today, we know that whiplash injuries frequently do not result from hyperextension or hyperflexion (extension and flexion beyond normal physiological limits), but rather an extremely rapid extension and flexion that causes injuries.
Due to their complicated nature and profound impact on peoples lives, few topics in health care generate as much controversy as whiplash injuries. Unlike a broken bone where a simple x-ray can validate the presence of the fracture and standards of care can direct a health care professional as to the best way in which to handle the injury, whiplash injuries involve an unpredictable combination of nervous system, muscles joints and connective tissue disruption that is not simple to diagnose and can be even more of a challenge to treat. In order to help you understand the nature of whiplash injuries and how they should be treated, it is necessary to spend a bit of time discussing the mechanics of how whiplash injuries occur.
The Four Phases of a Whiplash Injury
During a rear-end automobile collision, your body goes through an extremely rapid and intense acceleration and deceleration. In fact, all four phases of a whiplash injury occur in less than one-half of a second! At each phase, there is a different force acting on the body that contributes to the overall injury, and with such a sudden and forceful movement, damage to the vertebrae, nerves, discs, muscles, and ligaments of your neck and spine can be substantial.
Injuries Resulting from Whiplash Trauma
It is the single most common complaint in whiplash trauma, being reported by over 90% of patients. Often this pain radiates across the shoulders, up into the head, and down between the shoulder blades. Whiplash injuries tend to affect all of the tissues in the neck, including the facet joints and discs between the vertebrae, as well as all of the muscles, ligaments and nerves.
Facet joint pain is the most common cause of neck pain following a car accident. Facet joint pain is usually felt on the back of the neck, just to the right or left of center, and is usually tender to the touch. Facet joint pain cannot be visualized on x-rays or MRIs. It can only be diagnosed by physical palpation of the area.
Disc injury is also a common cause of neck pain; especially chronic pain. The outer wall of the disc (called the anulus) is made up of bundles of fibers that can be torn during a whiplash trauma. These tears, then, can lead to disc degeneration or herniation, resulting in irritation or compression of the nerves running through the area. This compression or irritation commonly leads to radiating pain into the arms, shoulders and upper back, and may result in muscle weakness.
Damage to the muscles and ligaments in the neck and upper back are the major cause of the pain experienced in the first few weeks following a whiplash injury, and is the main reason why you experience stiffness and restricted range of motion. But as the muscles have a chance to heal, they typically don’t cause as much actual pain as they contribute to abnormal movement. Damage to the ligaments often results in abnormal movement and instability.
Low back pain
Recovery from Whiplash
With proper care, many mild whiplash injuries heal within six to nine months. However, more than 20% of those who suffer from whiplash injuries continue to suffer from pain, weakness or restricted movement two years after their accident. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these people will continue to suffer from some level of disability or pain for many years after that, if not for the rest of their lives.
Whiplash is a unique condition that requires the expertise of a skilled health professional specially trained to work with these types of injuries. The most effective treatment for whiplash injuries is a combination of chiropractic care, rehabilitation of the soft tissues and taking care of yourself at home. Each of these will be discussed in the following chapters, but I will introduce each one of them briefly now.
Soft Tissue Rehabilitation
The most effective chiropractic care and soft tissue rehabilitation will be limited in its benefit if what you do at home or at work stresses or re-injures you on a daily basis. For this reason, it is important that your plan of care extend into the hours and days between your clinic visits to help speed your recovery. Some of the more common home care therapies are the application of ice packs, limitations on work or daily activities, specific stretches and exercises, taking nutritional supplements and getting plenty of rest.
Contact us today if you are suffering any pain related from a motor vehicle accident. We work with personal injury attorneys in Dade and Broward and accept personal injury cases. Not all offices can specialize in personal injury and may not be able to document and manage a complicated case. Due to the type of trauma usually involved in a motor vehicle accident, injured patients can always be seen the same day they call.