What is whiplash?

By Chiropractor Nick Loftus

Young Man With Neck Brace, IndoorI feel fairly well placed to impart my thoughts on the subject of whiplash. As well as having treated many patients with whiplash over the years, I have also been the recipient of well over 30 equivalent such injuries!

Let me assure you, this was through “catching an edge” wake-boarding and  thinking I was 8 and not 48, rather than being accident prone on the road!

So, what is whiplash?

Whiplash is the common term for a sprain/strain to the neck joints and muscles as a result of hyper-extension or hyper-flexion, most commonly sustained in a car accident.

It can however occur in any number of situations where a similar force is applied to the body, in the same way that Tennis Elbow or Golfer’s Elbow are by no means confined to tennis and golf.

In most cases whiplash injuries are confined to the soft tissues of the neck, shoulders and upper back, i.e. muscles, ligaments, tendons, nerves and joint capsules. But in more severe cases can involve bones too in the form of some sort of fracture to a vertebra.

 Whiplash sustained through a car accident

Typically the damage occurs when a vehicle is brought to an abrupt halt i.e. by running into the back of the car in front – or when a stationary vehicle is shunted from behind.

Essentially when a vehicle comes to an abrupt stop in a typical rear-end collision the human body carries on travelling forward due to momentum until it is stopped by a seatbelt, airbag or steering wheel for example.

This is typically fairly effective for the torso but allows the head to be “whipped” forward and then back again as it recoils, overpowering the natural reflexes and strength of the muscles in the neck causing damage.

The human body simply isn’t designed to withstand the forces involved in a car coming to a sudden halt at high speeds.

It’s worth noting that studies have shown that a whiplash type injury can be sustained at speeds as low as 12mph! This is made worse when the occupant is unaware of the impending collision and has no chance to brace him/herself.

 Symptoms of whiplash

The typical symptoms of whiplash tend to be soreness and stiffness in the neck and reduced range of motion. The sooner these come on the worse the injury. Sufferers typically find they have difficulty lifting their head off the pillow the next morning for example.

These are often associated with headaches and if the injury is slightly more serious then pains down the arms either from a damaged nerve or from referred pain from a muscle in spasm.

Some sufferers also complain of chest and shoulder girdle pains where there has been bruising from the seatbelt. The upper back (thoracic spine) may also be affected and feel “tight”.

 Typical whiplash symptoms:
  • Neck pain and stiffness
  • Headaches
  • Pain in the shoulder or between the shoulder blades
  • Lower back pain
  • Pain or numbness in the arm and/or hand
  • Dizziness
  • Ringing in the ears or blurred vision
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • Irritability, sleep disturbances, fatigue
How long does whiplash last?

This is one of those “how long is a piece of string” questions. It can be anything from a few days of mild neck ache to permanent disability, depending on the severity and frequency of injury as well as whether treatment was instigated in a timely fashion.

 Treatment of whiplash

In severe cases treatment initially consists of analgesics, anti-inflammatories, ice packs and often a soft collar to stabilise the cervical spine for the first ten days or so.

If symptoms include marked instability or arm pains then an x-ray or MRI might be indicated to rule out pathologies such as dislocation or fracture.

In mild to moderate cases then treatment consisting of corrective spinal manipulation and soft tissue work can be commenced a week to ten days after the accident. Post treatment strengthening exercises may then also be given.

As always it is prudent to seek advice on the best course of action from your Chiropractor or Physiotherapist as soon as possible after a whiplash accident.

The Waldegrave Clinic in Teddington offers Chiropractic, Physiotherapy and Complementary Therapies and works with most health insurers. We are open 6 days a week from 8am – telephone 020 8943 2424

Nick Loftus, Chiropractor Waldegrave Clinic

Nick Loftus, Chiropractor Waldegrave Clinic

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