Whiplash and Spinal Cord Injury

Valerie Ashton

Each year, there are more than 5 million traffic collisions in the US, causing a wide range of injuries to drivers and passengers. Between 28% to 40% of collisions are “rear-end collisions,” accounting for 1.15 and 2.5 million accidents annually. The most common injury from these rear-end collisions is a soft-tissue strain that may be called “whiplash.”  This term is not a medical term, but rather describes the event where the neck is forced backward, then forwards, stretching behind its normal range of motion.  For most people, a whiplash event causes a soft-tissue injury, which may be officially diagnosed as a strain or a sprain. For some, a whiplash may also be part of a more serious spinal cord injury.

Common Symptoms of Whiplash

Symptoms may not show up in the immediate aftermath of a collision and may present later in the day or the following morning. The most common symptoms of whiplash are neck pain, stiffness, shoulder pain, headaches, numbness or weakness in arms and legs, and jaw pain. Victims may also have neurological symptoms including dizziness, blurred vision, memory lapses and difficulty concentrating. Concentration and memory problems may be attributed to the pain itself, medications you are taking, or concussion or brain injury. Injury to the spinal cord associated with whiplash may be diagnosed as Whiplash Associated Disorder or WAD. A common symptom of WAD is a weakness in the legs. Other indicators of possible spinal cord injury are:

  • Numbness
  • Weakness
  • Loss of balance while walking
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Loss of movement.

Spinal cord injuries are significantly more serious than soft-tissue injuries. If you suspect possible spinal cord damage, seeking emergency medical treatment is imperative.

Diagnosing a Spinal Cord Injury after a Whiplash Event

If a spinal cord injury is suspected, emergency medical professionals may order CT or MRI scans of the cervical spine to determine ligament damage. They may refer you to a neurologist or spine care specialist to do an injection test called a medial branch block or MBB, to determine whether a facet joint is contributing to pain and inflammation. The facet point could also be dislocated, which requires chiropractic care and in rare cases, surgery.  If you do not have a spinal cord injury, a chiropractor can help you align your spine and increase blood flow to your injuries, facilitating faster and more natural healing. Most patients who seek chiropractic care following a whiplash event report less pain-related symptoms and improved overall health. 

Considering Surgical Treatment for Whiplash Injuries

It is unlikely that whiplash will require surgery. If the injury is soft-tissue in nature, you will likely be treated with physical therapy or chiropractic care. If you have persistent neck and shoulder pain after an accident, which does not improve with non-surgical treatment, you may see a spine surgeon. If you had a ruptured or herniated invertebral disc, your surgeon might perform a discectomy to remove the damaged disk. An artificial cervical disk or spinal fusion may be necessary to re-stabilize the spine.