A broken bone shows up on a simple X-Ray, a nerve pain can show up on an MRI scan. But whiplash injury? It can often not be as direct of a finding as a broken bone or pinched nerve. Whiplash injuries often involve an unpredictable combination of injuries and sensitivity to the nerves, muscles, joints, and surrounding connective tissues (like your joint capsules and ligaments). This makes it not as simple to diagnose, and not so simple to treat. This article will help you to understand the nature of whiplash injuries and how they should be treated.
Let’s start with defining what exactly whiplash is. Years ago, scientists thought that whiplash injuries happened from, well, whipping your head back and forth too much! They thought that if the head was moved beyond its normal ranges, say extremely forward or extremely backwards, this was what caused a whiplash injury to the muscles, joints, and nerves around the neck and head.
Now, the current definition of whiplash is, “bony or soft tissue injuries” resulting from “rear-end or side impact, predominantly in motor vehicle accidents, and from other mishaps” as a result of “an acceleration-deceleration mechanism of energy transfer to the neck”.
This means that if the head moves back and forth quickly enough (usually from a rear-end accident or impact), even if the range is not huge, it can cause a whiplash injury because the speed is what transfers energy and injury to the head and neck – not the range.
The common situations where a whiplash injury can occur are:
When you get rear-ended, your body goes through an extremely rapid and intense acceleration and deceleration and takes your head and neck along for the ride. The rapid back and forth happens from the impact to the car, and the opposing forces where your body falls forward and then backwards again. In fact, all phases of a whiplash injury occur in less than one-half of a second! Some people may find it surprising that whiplash can still occur even after a minor accident, where the vehicles involved were driving at less than 14 miles per hour.
Airplane turbulence can work very similarly to how whiplash occurs in a car accident. When your airplane ride gets bumpy enough but your body still remains strapped into your seat with a belt, the body parts which are free to move get the majority of the load – your neck. You might find your head shifting back and forth quickly with turbulence, and when it gets bumpy enough, the force can be large enough to cause a whiplash injury.
Sports that may have more impact, such as rugby and football, or sports which involve speed like motor racing, can cause significant injury to the neck depending on how the body falls. Certain impacts such as a body falling rapidly to the ground can cause a sudden ‘whipping’ movement of the head which results in a whiplash injury.
Many car accident victims experience whiplash injuries, yet they don’t always seek medical attention right away. Why not? This is because whiplash symptoms don’t always appear immediately following any form of accident. It’s pretty common that a person with whiplash can go for days or weeks with progressively worsening symptoms before realising that something is wrong. Things to look out for if you’ve been in a recent accident (even a mild one) are:
Neck pain is one of the most common indicators of whiplash. This can be progressive and slowly build up hours to days after an accident. It occurs after muscles, ligaments, and tendons are sprained and strained by the rapid backwards movement of your head and neck.
Neck stiffness can happen as a protective mechanism to injury. The neck is made out of solid bony blocks known as vertebrae, which stack up on top of each other and have a flexible disc in between them to help with movement. The force from the accident can jolt your vertebrae out of alignment or fracture them, resulting in sharp neck pain and the inability to move your head fully.
Shoulder or back pain can happen as a result of your lower body absorbing impact from the injury. The muscles that connect to your neck also connect to your shoulder, and any neck sprain can cause residual shoulder pain. Even if your neck pain is mild, if you’re feeling the effects on other parts of your body, that definitely means the impact was there.
Can whiplash cause neurological problems? The answer is yes. Numbness most often happens when there is a nerve or disc involvement. This can mean that the whiplash injury has caused your neck alignment to move out of position, and created a compression on to the nerves of your neck. This results in numbness and weakness of your arms/hands.
Dizziness following a whiplash injury usually results from injury to the facet joints of the cervical spine – small joints in your spine that help your head to turn left and right, and side to side. Although in some severe whiplash cases, dizziness can be a result of injuries to the brain causing a concussion. Typically, this dizziness is very temporary and improves significantly with physiotherapy and chiropractic treatment for whiplash injury.
Difficulty concentrating can come from a range of factors – pain, stiffness, or dizziness can all interrupt focus. Whiplash can also cause headaches which affect your concentration.
The severity of whiplash injuries often goes by the grading of symptoms. If you’re at home and wondering how to check how severe your whiplash is, try and match your symptoms to this grading system by the Quebec Task Force on Whiplash Associated Disorders from Day 1 of your accident until Day 7.
|0||No complaint about the neck|
|1||Neck complaint of pain, stiffness or tenderness (General symptoms)|
|2||Neck complaint (Pain, stiffness) and musculoskeletal signs – reduced range of motion and localised tenderness (Symptoms become worse)|
|3||Neck complaint (Pain, stiffness, tenderness) and neurological signs – decreased or absent deep tendon reflexes, weakness, and sensory deficits (numbness, tingling in the arms and hands, dizziness)|
|4||Neck complain and fracture or dislocation – Extreme pain, unable to move neck, can’t sleep at night, severe weakness and numbness in arms/hands, dizziness|
If at any point you start to feel arm and hand weakness and numbness, like a sudden reduction in strength and sensation, or are having extreme pain in the neck that may appear with headaches or dizziness, or are suddenly having difficulty walking, you need to see a doctor to get an X-Ray or MRI to rule out any serious life-threatening fractures and injuries.
How long a whiplash injury takes to heal depends on the severity of your whiplash and whether you have had previous neck injuries before. In general, mild whiplash injuries can take 2-4 weeks to heal, and more serious injuries (that experience more pain, stiffness, or weakness) may take anywhere from 6-12 weeks to recover.
Whiplash can seem to heal on its own because the body is an amazing and adaptable system, but it often comes at a cost. Old whiplash injuries that have not been treated well can result in laxity (instability and weakness) of the neck, and predispose a person to a higher risk of injury again in the future. This is why we recommend getting checked out immediately after any accidents, to ensure that your neck did not suffer any unwanted repercussions of an accident or injury.
The good news is that whiplash injuries can often be treated conservatively without surgery, as long as you do not have severe symptoms (See above: “When Do I Need To See A Doctor?”).
Whiplash injuries to the cervical spine (neck) can help with chiropractic care. When serious nerve injuries are ruled out, neck stiffness can often be a result of the neck’s protective mechanism and cause joint stiffness that doesn’t seem to want to relax. A trained chiropractor is able to identify the segments which are restricted, and through gentle treatment, they are able to relieve the stiffness of the spine. Specific chiropractic care by an experienced professional is important because whiplash can often come along with laxity (a.k.a. hypermobility) and adjustments need to be individualised to the person.
Physiotherapy for whiplash often involves rehabilitative exercises for the neck. Gradual strengthening of the tiny muscles around the head and neck goes a long way in staving off long-term pain and stiffness, as well as helping the individual to gain strength for prevention of future neck injuries. A spinal orthotic may be introduced in the session to help your neck regain back its original curves that may be affected after a car injury causing cervical spine misalignment.
If you think you may be experiencing whiplash, or have an old untreated whiplash injury which is currently giving you pain and stiffness, book an appointment with us today. Whether a fresh injury or an old injury, there is surely something that can be done for you at Spinefit.