The Impact of Whiplash

Whiplash is a common term used to describe a neck strain, often associated with a traffic collision or motor vehicle accident.  Emergency room doctors or chiropractors may diagnose whiplash after a car is rear-ended and the neck and the driver or passenger’s head is thrown forcefully forward, and then backward, extending rapidly beyond its normal range of motion. Other causes of whiplash injuries include physical abuse or assault, theme park or roller coaster accidents, and contact sports.

Understanding How Whiplash Happens

According to Consumer Reports, a rear-end crash occurs in the U.S. every 17 seconds, with whiplash is the most frequently reported injury. In just a few short seconds, the stretching and hyperextension of the neck can cause months and even years of pain. Taller people, especially women, are most susceptible to whiplash injuries. A study published in the Chinese Journal of Traumatology in 2009, entitled “Biomechanics of Whiplash Injury” identified the three distinct elements of a whiplash injury:

  • Initially, the neck is quickly and forcefully bent forward (flexion), losing its normal lordotic curve (the increased inward curving of the lumbar spine).
  • Next, the lower neck is extended, moving in the opposite direction from the flexion, causing the cervical spine (upper spine) to form an S-shaped curve.
  • Finally, the movement continues up until all bones are extended. In this final, post-impact phase, the neck is fully extended.

Symptoms of Whiplash

Whiplash injuries may involve muscle, ligament, or tendon damage, and Injuries can occur at car crash speeds as low as 10 mph. A 2006 study by Dr. Brian Stemper showed that the speed of the car does not determine the severity of the injury.   Whiplash, like other soft-tissue injuries, is an “invisible injury” that will not show up on an X-ray or MRI. The symptoms may not develop immediately after impact and may take up to 24 hours to present. The most common signs of whiplash are:

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  • Neck stiffness or pain
  • Pain that worsens with neck movement
  • Headaches, especially at the base of the skull
  • Tenderness in the shoulder or upper back
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue

If your head is turned at the moment of impact, the severity of injury may be worse, possibly even causing spinal instability.

Preventing and Minimizing Whiplash Injuries

Car accidents are obviously not always avoidable, but you can take safety measures in your driving to minimize the effects of whiplash. First, sit safely in your seat at all times, and instruct your passengers to do the same. Don’t ride with your feet up on the dashboard or hanging out the window. Ride in a vehicle that has a headrest, and position it high enough to support your head. If it won’t reach the top of your head, adjust it to as high as it will go. A headrest that’s too low will not protect you in a crash.

Protecting Yourself Following an Accident

If you have been involved in a car accident, don’t tell your insurance company you feel fine until you’ve had a chance to be evaluated. Insurance companies are so eager to get a recorded statement immediately after an accident because they want your assurance that you are fine, and not injured, before these symptoms may present themselves. It’s possible you may feel fine in the first hours following an accident but will wake up the next morning with severe neck pain.