What is whiplash?
Whiplash is not a medical term but is a term that is used to describe a complex of symptoms surrounding a traumatic injury. It is most commonly used to describe neck injuries associated with a car accident (officially called a Motor Vehicle Accident or MVA). Whiplash does not define what structures in your neck have been injured or the extent of the injury. Whiplash has also been referred to as an acceleration-deceleration injury, a hyperextension/hyperflexion injury, or a sprain/strain injury. Again, these are misleading names because they don’t actually tell you what structures were injured or how badly they were injured.
What contributes to a whiplash injury?
Speed of impact and the varying weight of the cars involved make a difference in the extent of injury. However, a big contributing factor to how much damage is done to your neck is how your head is positioned at the time of impact. Your neck is better built to go forward and backward while looking straight ahead than it is if your neck is turned. In fact, your forward/backward range of motion is decreased by about 50% if your head is turned 45 degrees. Age, muscle composition, and systemic disease such as diabetes also contribute to extent of injury and healing time.
What is actually happening in my neck?
When you are in a car accident, your neck is being forced beyond its physiological limits. This can lead to anything from a muscle tear to broken bones. Many times it can actually cause changes to the bony alignment of your neck. For example, the force of the crash can cause the normal curve of the neck to be flattened or even reversed. Even if you have no pain after the MVA (which happens on rare occasions) the change in bone structure can have long term effects on your neck’s health. This is because abnormal movement of any joint for an extended period of time causes accelerated wear and tear on that joint which leads to early onset of osteoarthritis. This is why it is so important to get a thorough assessment and appropriate care as soon as you can after a car crash. Chiropractic care is very useful for restoring the spines natural function and curvature.
What can you expect from your doctors?
When you go to see your doctor right after a car crash, their immediate concerns will be your vascular system, bone structure, and the nervous system. They will be working to rule out broken bones, internal bleeding, and concussion first and then start looking for other injuries. These injuries include but are not limited to: disc herniations, joint injuries, muscle sprains, and ligament strains. When you are in a car accident your exam and history should be very thorough. Your doctor should go over every area that hurts and do an exam that includes each injured site.
Overview of treatments for whiplash.
When your health care provider is coming up with a treatment plan for you, it is important to remember that everyone is different. People that are in the same car crash will have very different experiences. One person might have had their head turned to talk to the person behind them causing them to have much worse injuries than everyone else in the same car accident. The position you are in when you are hit is not the only defining factor in how fast you will heal. It is best to find a health care professional that does a thorough history and exam and is also willing to update their treatment plan as you heal.
General treatments for general injuries in the neck:
Muscle sprains: you should be given some combination of stretches, strengthening exercises, and massage for this type of injury.
Ligament strain: you will most likely be told to ice, rest, and be given proprioception exercises (exercises that help your brain communicate with the injured joint).
Joint injury: you should be getting adjusted and given proprioception exercises.
Changes to the underlining curvature or the spine: you should be adjusted and given some form of traction to restore the curve in your spine.