Whiplash, also know as a “sprainstrain” injury to the neck, is caused by injury to the soft tissues of the neck that occurs from a sudden jerking or “whipping” of the head. This type of motion strains the muscles and sprains the ligaments of the neck beyond their normal range of motion.
Whiplash often occurs when a vehicle stops suddenly in a car crash or is struck from behind. Either of these two actions causes things in the vehicle to be thrown forward — including passengers.
Although a seat belt will keep a person’s body from being thrown forward, the head may snap forward, then backward, causing a whiplash injury in the neck. In addition to car accidents, whiplash can be caused by roller coasters and other amusement park rides, sports injuries or being punched or shaken. (Whiplash is one of the hallmarks of shaken baby syndrome).
Most people “shake it off ” as no big deal. The muscles hurt for a few days or weeks, but when the pain goes away, they think they are “healed.” Unfortunately, the soft tissue damage that was done can cause a more permanent bony injury to begin, known as osteoarthritis. This occurs when the bones have been in a malpositioned state for too long. The overstretching of the ligaments and tendons allows for the bones to remain out of place unless they are corrected through spinal manipulation. Medications will help with the symptoms of pain and headache, but cannot fix the soft tissues.
Some of the more common symptoms are pain and stiffness in the neck, head, chest, shoulders or arms. You may also experience blurred vision or dizziness, difficulty swallowing, nausea, ringing in the ears, vertigo, irritability, fatigue, pain
between the shoulder blades or numbness and tingling pain in the jaw or face. In worse cases, the pain may even extend to legs, feet or hands. This is because an injury to the upper spinal nerves can contribute to pain throughout the body.
It is important to seek treatment early, even if you do not believe you are hurt. Once the ligaments have been stretched 30 percent beyond their normal capacity, they will not return to their normal position and, therefore, will not provide the proper support for the structures in the neck. The best rule of thumb for home treatment is R-I-C-E, which stands for Rest, Ice, Compress and Elevate Specific techniques on how to do this vary by region. You should consult your chiropractor, nurse practitioner or medical doctor for specific treatments in this area.
Another consideration is prevention. Headrests should be elevated to where the head lands on the middle of the headrest. Also, keep a safe distance between you and other vehicles. As they say, prevention is the best medicine!
Dr. Lesa G. Ansell, D.C., R.N. is the CEO of Pro-adjuster Chiropractic Clinic and a supervisory nurse specialist for Texas 4 DMAT.