Whiplash is a generic term applied to injuries of the neck. Whiplash occurs when the neck is suddenly and/or violently jolted in one direction and then another, creating a whip-like movement. Whiplash is most commonly seen in people involved in motor vehicle accidents, but it can also occur from falls, sports injuries, work injuries, and other incidents.
In a whiplash injury, the neck’s supporting soft tissues (ligaments, muscles and tendons) become stretched beyond their normal working capacity. The result is called a sprain/strain injury. Ligaments help support, protect and restrict excessive movement of the vertebrae. Injury to them is called a sprain. In addition, the discs between the vertebrae, which are essentially ligaments, can be torn, potentially causing disc herniation. Muscles and tendons obviously move and support the spine. Injury to these is called a sprain and can be quite painful. Even though it is very rare, vertebrae can be fractured and/or dislocated in a whiplash injury.
The most common symptoms of whiplash are pain and stiffness in the front and back of neck. Turning the head often makes the pain and discomfort worse. Headache is another common symptom, seen in more than two thirds of whiplash patients. The pain and stiffness may extend down into the shoulders and arms, upper back, and even the upper chest. In addition to the musculoskeletal symptoms, some patients experience dizziness, difficulty swallowing, nausea, even blurred vision after a whiplash injury. While these symptoms are distressing, they typically disappear within a relatively short time. If they persist, it is important to inform your doctor. Vertigo and ringing in the ears may also be present. Others will complain of irritability, fatigue and difficulty concentrating. In rare cases, symptoms can persist for weeks, months, or even years.
Another important and remarkable aspect of whiplash is that the signs and symptoms often do not develop until 2 to 48 hours after the injury. This scenario is relatively common but not completely understood. Some speculate that it may be due to delayed muscle soreness, a condition seen in other circumstances.
Treatment varies with the individual patient. One of the most important aspects of whiplash treatment and management is for the patient to stay active unless there is some serious injury that requires immobilization. Patients should not be afraid to move and be active within their pain threshold. In our office, we will often prescribe an exercise or stretching program during the healing phase of the injury. It is particularly important to follow this program as prescribed, so that you can achieve the best long-term recovery.
Ice is often used to help control pain and reduce the inflammation that results from whiplash injuries. Chiropractic spinal manipulation and/or mobilization can also give relief in many cases of neck pain. One unfortunate result of a whiplash type injury is Vertebral Subluxation Complex. This is a fancy term for a misalignment and fixation of the joints of your spine. When this happens the nerves that come out between these joints become irritated causing pain and muscle spasm. Untreated, this problem can lead to long-term problems like arthritis, headaches, even pain and tingling down the arms and hands.
Generally speaking, whiplash cannot be “prevented,” but there are some things that you can do while in a motor vehicle that may reduce the chances of a more severe injury. Always wear restraints (lap or shoulder belt) and ensure that the headrest in your vehicle is adjusted to the appropriate height. Whiplash and whiplash associated disorders have become an epidemic in North America. The National Highway Traffic Safety Institute reports that there were 2,491,000 motor vehicle injuries in 2007. Research shows that of those injured 52% will develop chronic pain. Early treatment even for what may seem like a minor injury will help prevent the underlying problem from developing into a more serious or long lasting disorder.