Whiplash is a neck injury that happens when the head jerks forward and backward. It usually occurs following vehicular accidents (especially rear-end collisions) while a person is in a stationary position.
Research has shown that females are more at risk of suffering from disabling whiplash-related injuries than males, both as a passenger and as a driver, by almost 30%. This is attributed to the lower body mass and weaker ligaments and muscles in females that contribute to faster neck acceleration in rear-end impacts.
Early intervention is necessary for a speedy recovery from whiplash injuries. Anyone who has recently been involved in a minor crash needs proper assessment and evaluation by a doctor to rule out whiplash. It may not be life-threatening but it can lead to long-term disability from the neck down if not managed properly.
The Nature of Whiplash Injury
When a car hits your vehicle from behind, the sudden acceleration-deceleration force rapidly whips your head back and forth. Your body is propelled forward while your head and neck fall backward, and vice versa, several times.
When this happens, there will be a rapid hyperextension and hyperflexion of your head which can potentially damage the soft tissues and bone structures located in your neck. The sudden force can also tear your muscles and tendons and harm the spinal cord as well.
Whiplash can also be caused by any impact that is strong enough to make your head jerk back and forth like collisions when playing contact sports. Other causes include slipping, falling or getting hit in the head by something solid and heavy.
Risk Factors for Whiplash
- Age. Your risk for injury increases as you get older primarily because of the decrease in muscle mass and elasticity of soft tissues. Brittle bones can also lead to more severe whiplash-related injuries after the collision.
- Sex. Women are more likely to injure their neck because their lower body mass makes it easier to propel their body forward.
- Athletes or anyone playing contact sports like judo or rugby
- Poor posture
- Existing spinal problem
Signs and Symptoms
- Neck and shoulder pain which might increase with any head movement
- Neck swelling, stiffness, and tenderness
- Tightness of the muscles in the neck
- Decrease in range of motion
- Jaw pain
- Headache which radiates to the forehead
- Pins and needles sensation
- Blurring of vision
- Ringing in the ears
- Arm and back pain
- Arm weakness
- Muscle spasm
In more severe cases, manifestations may include poor concentration, depression, anxiety, stress, and even insomnia.
How do you prevent Whiplash?
No one can foresee accidents; therefore, the best way to prevent this type of injury is to ensure safety each time you get in the car. If you are feeling drowsy, it’s best to pull over on the side of the road and take a short power nap.
Seat belts, head restraints, airbags, and curtains can reduce the risk of injury as long as they are positioned properly and used correctly. You should also make sure that your car is in a good condition, with all the signal lights working properly. Therefore, it’s imperative to consider these safety measures as an investment to protect yourself from fatal injuries.
Other means of prevention include:
- Keeping neck muscles strong with strengthening exercises
- Maintaining a good posture while sitting down
- Using proper equipment and clothing when playing contact sports
How to treat a whiplash injury?
Treatment varies depending on the signs and symptoms present and the extent of the injury. Aside from prescribing pain relievers and running imaging studies to rule out spinal disk and cervical spine damage, doctors prescribe the use of a whiplash neck brace to limit painful neck movement and prevent additional damage and injury to the neck structures. This is just for short-term use, however, because studies show that wearing neck braces for long periods can weaken your neck muscles and result in psychological dependency.
If tests reveal that there’s nothing wrong with the spinal alignment, you might be advised to start rotational and stretching exercises as early as 4-5 days after the accident. Too much rest and immobilization are no longer recommended because it might increase the pain and stiffness, cause muscle atrophy, and prolong the healing and recovery process. Additionally, going to physical therapy can help whiplash patients reduce muscle spasms and increase blood circulation, allowing their neck tissues to heal more quickly.
Physical and occupational therapy will help in strengthening the muscles and also reduce stress when you need to go back to work. Although some injuries can heal on their own with the symptoms getting better in a few months, some cases might take longer recovery time and can even limit activities.
Whiplash injuries are not life-threatening but still require proper assessment to mitigate debilitating complications. If you are involved in any minor crash or collision, it’s always best to be on the safe side and seek medical care right away.