There is probably no other injury that generates as much controversy in the healthcare community as whiplash injuries do. One of the reasons is that, unlike broken bones, spine injuries, or cuts and bruises, there is no predictable way to treat whiplash. There are such a great number of physiological elements involved (muscles, joints, nerves, and connective tissues), and a wide array of ways this injury can happen (head-on crash, side crash, hit from behind), so whiplash can present in as many different ways.
When you’ve been rear-ended (hit from behind by another car), the forces your body is subject to are immense, and it all happens very quickly (all four phases in less than half a second). Each phase carries with it different forces acting upon the body that have the potential to severely damage several different parts of the body including vertebrae, spinal nerves and discs, and muscles and ligaments along the neck and spine.
As we’re discussing the four phases of whiplash, it helps to picture a car accident happening in very slow motion. The following phases will describe what happens to your body in relation to the car you’re traveling in.
There are so many different injuries that can occur from whiplash that it could make up a separate article altogether. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the more common injuries and the treatment protocol for each.
Neck pain is the number one complaint and symptom of a whiplash injury, and will occur in over 90% of those who have whiplash. The pain doesn’t usually stop in the neck, though. Spinal pain, radiating pain into the shoulders, up onto the head, and/or down between the shoulder blades are all common complaints, as are muscular pain due to muscle and ligament tears.
A symptom called “facet joint pain” is very common, and is felt just to the left or right of the center of the back of the neck. It’s very tender to the touch, and can’t be seen on x-rays or MRIs.
Headaches affect over 80% of those suffering from whiplash. The headache may be from a brain injury, or it may be from damage to the muscles and ligaments in the cervical spine, which will shoot pain into the head.
Issues with your jaw joints that result from a whiplash injury can be devastating. Pain, jaw clicking and popping noises, headaches, facial pain, ear pain, and pain while eating are all common symptoms of TMJ. Dentist and some chiropractors are specially trained to be able to treat TMJ to restore normal range of motion, and alleviate pain in this area.
It’s very common to have a mild brain injury after a whiplash event because the brain also continues to move when the head is stationary, and it hits the inside of the skull with incredible force. The brain is a structure that can sustain injury in the form of bruising or bleeding, and swelling can occur. If you’ve suffered a mild concussion, you may have lost consciousness temporarily during the accident, and may be confused or agitated just after.
Damage to the facet joints of the neck will cause dizziness, but dizziness can also be a sign of brain or brain stem injury. It is usually temporary.
Because of the way your spine is connected all the way from your neck down to your tailbone, a whiplash injury could include pain in the lower back region as well, as muscles and ligaments have been strained and possibly torn due to the severe forces that occurred during the accident.
Most whiplash injuries are mild, treatable, and will see significant healing within nine months after the initial injury. About 20% of whiplash injuries will continue to have pain, muscular weakness, or difficulty with full range of motion for up to two years, or longer.
A variety of treatments are available ranging from physical therapy to chiropractic work and massage therapy.