While it may take several days to show the symptoms of whiplash, the effects can last much longer. For some, whiplash symptoms resolve within three months, but for others, the pain and discomfort persists for years. One Danish study found that those with serious whiplash injuries were still disabled by the pain one year after the injury. Another study showed that over 70 percent of those injured had some symptoms up to seven years after the injury. Let’s take an in-depth look at whiplash, what it is and what causes it and how early treatment is beneficial.
What Is a Whiplash Injury?
Whiplash is an injury to the soft tissues of the neck, which includes the muscles, tendons, ligaments and even the sponge-like discs between the vertebrae of the cervical spine. It occurs when the neck is suddenly thrust in a backward direction followed by a forward recoil. As this happens, the soft-tissue neck elements are pulled beyond their normal limits, causing pain and structural damage. It most commonly occurs in car accidents.
Phases of Whiplash
- Initial phase – backward: After impact, usually from the rear, the neck is thrust into a violent backward motion. The headrest can limit the retrograde motion. Yet, up to 20 percent of all damage occurs despite this.
- Second phase – forward: In this phase, the person’s head moves forward in a snap-like motion. When this happens, the muscles, ligaments and intervertebral discs are stretched, causing some component fibers to tear. Vertebrae are pushed out of alignment, and the spinal cord may be affected. As the head moves forward, the individual’s brain does too, often striking the skull. This can cause modest injury to the brain, resulting in neurological symptoms.
Additional Consequences of Whiplash
In some cases, disc herniation can occur due to the destruction of the soft discs that separate one vertebra from another. Preexisting osteoporosis can present problems also since the vertebrae are fragile in these patients, and the force of a whiplash injury can cause the vertebrae to fracture. In more serious accidents, the forward motion of the head and brain can cause concussion or bruising of the brain.
In older individuals, even a mild head injury can result in a subdural hematoma, which is a collection of blood between the dura layer that protects the brain and the brain’s surface. This can occur up to 30 days after the injury. If this happens, doctors may use a surgical procedure to remove the blood or allow it to resorb on its own. If the latter option is chosen, multiple MRIs or CT scans are needed to monitor the clot’s size.
Symptoms Associated With Whiplash
The symptom complex associated with whiplash is dependant on several factors such as the direction and speed of impact. It is also defined by the victim’s stature and age. Smaller individuals have a greater chance of significant injury. Women and children also have less muscle support in their cervical area and suffer more severe injury. Older individuals have a higher incidence of complications.
Common Symptoms of Whiplash
Some of the most common whiplash symptoms are:
- Neck pain and stiffness: This occurs in nine out of 10 people with whiplash. If the discs are involved, it is likely the pain will become chronic. When discs are damaged, they can gradually deteriorate and rupture, leaving the vertebrae to grate on one another. As the nerves exit the spinal cord, this can cause significant irritation to the nerves or compress them, leading to additional problems such as numbness and tingling in the arms and decreased muscle strength, among others. Nerve involvement can also be felt in the area between the shoulder blades or the low back.
- Headaches, commonly located at the skull’s base: This occurs in eight out of 10 people with whiplash. It may be referred pain from the injury to the neck muscles or be the result of brain trauma.
- Jaw pain: This happens less frequently. When it does, it can become a chronic problem.
- Back pain: The cervical spine is not an isolated entity. When an accident occurs, the low back is also involved. Victims of rear-end (50-percent) and side-impact (75-percent) accidents, also experience low back pain.
- Brain injury symptoms:
- Vision problems such as blurred vision
- Cognitive problems
- Memory problems
- Tinnitus or ringing in the ears
- Irritable or anger-ridden behavior
- Problems sleeping
- Numbness in the arms or hands
Types of Accidents Where Whiplash Can Occur
While whiplash is most commonly associated with motor vehicle accidents, it can also occur in many other types of accidents:
- Equestrian accidents
- Assault to the head
- Bicycle accidents
- Motorcycle accidents
- Rides in amusement parks, particularly bumper cars
Treatment for whiplash is divided into acute and chronic care. In the acute phase, analgesics and warm compresses are used to alleviate pain. In the past, cold compresses were used in the early stages, but recently, the medical community is advocating for the use of warm compresses to relax the muscles even at the outset.
Muscle relaxants are used in some cases where OTC medication is not effective. Physical therapy techniques can also be adept at reducing stiffness. In the past, cervical collars were used extensively but are now recommended for no more than three hours out of a 24-hour day. If disc damage or herniation has occurred, surgical repair may be necessary if a conservative approach does not work.
Some patients develop chronic neck pain after whiplash. The reasons for this chronic form of whiplash pain have been linked to damage to the vertebral bodies secondary to this injury. Recently, scientists have shown that one particular joint, cervical zygapophysial joint, is involved as a cause of chronic neck pain. This involves the small facet joints that exist behind and between two adjacent vertebrae.
Such joints prevent excessive motion when the spine moves and yet allow the flexibility the spine needs. The pain can be persistent with numerous episodes. A CT scan is the best diagnostic tool. Conservative methods are often used to control painful episodes. Some surgical procedures are available if control is not possible.
Lower the Risk of Whiplash
Since the vast majority of whiplash injuries happen in automobiles, it is important to take several precautions:
- Adjust the headrest correctly. To make sure the headrest is at the right height, put your hand on the top of your head when sitting in the car. You should feel the headrest with your hand. It should be no more than two inches away from the rear portion of your head.
- If your vehicle has seat adjusters, position the seat at a 20-degree angle.
Free Case Review for Your Whiplash Car Accident Injury
If you’ve been injured and are dealing with whiplash, please reach out to the Law Offices of David Azizi for a free review of your important whiplash injury claim. You can contact us online or by calling (800) 991-5292.