Whiplash — Where Is My Neck Pain Coming From?

 

Last week while driving to work, you’re stopped at a red light and glance in the rearview mirror and notice that a car is approaching from behind way too fast.  The next thing you remember is the squeal of the tires and a loud crash with an accompanied sudden jolt as your car is propelled forward by the impact. Your initial reaction is one of shock, wondering is anyone hurt? How bad is my car damaged? Will there be another hit? Should I get out of the car? I’m going to be late for work! Within a few minutes, the police arrive and after about an hour of taking statements from the two drivers and a few witnesses, you decline an ambulance offer to take you to a nearby hospital for an examination as, “…this little stiffness and ache in my neck is no big deal.”  Happy you can still drive your car, you arrive at work an hour and a half late.  After reviewing the details of the crash with co-workers several times, you begin to notice a headache, your neck stiffening up and movements becoming limited and painful.  After another couple of hours and a few Ibuprofen, the pain has increased and you now have a whopping headache. You decide, “I better go see my Doctor of Chiropractic to see if something is wrong.”

 After the exam and x-rays, the Doctor of Chiropractic shows you a chart and explains the mechanism of injury that usually occurs in a low speed rear-end collision.  A couple of things that were said really hit home in helping you to understand how such a seemingly minor crash can create so much pain.  The first is that it is not possible to voluntarily contract a muscle quick enough and “brace” to prevent the acceleration of the head. Upon impact, as the car is propelled forwards, the head initially goes backwards and then when the muscles in front of the neck are stretched to their limits, the head is then “whipped” forwards in a “crack the whip” type of response and all of this takes less than 600-700 milliseconds!  Because of the far limits of neck motion being reached during this process, the ligaments that hold the vertebra together are often stretched and/or torn.  This can be appreciated on the bending neck x-rays which shows one vertebra sliding forwards on the one below and the angle created being greater when compared to the surrounding vertebra.  The second point of discussion that stands out was the fact that your head was rotated at the time of impact from looking in the rearview mirror places the neck at a greater risk of injury because of the twisting motion that occurs during the “crack the whip” process.  Another interesting point: because there wasn’t a lot of car damage, the shock and force of the impact was not absorbed by crushing metal and that energy is therefore transferred to the contents in the vehicle, including the occupants.  That is why your briefcase ended up on the floor and your glasses flew off during the crash. Another point of discussion was made concerning the difference between genders and the degree of injury, as women are more likely to be injured more severely because of the less muscular and sometimes longer female neck.  The degree of injury is also at greater risk when there is osteoarthritis in the neck that pre-exists the crash.  An analogy of how a young sapling branch can bend without breaking verses the “old oak branch” which snaps and breaks when its only bent slightly. So, if you are a middle aged, female with a long slender neck with pre-existing arthritis looking in the rearview mirror prior to impact in a rear-end collision, ligament over stretching / tearing is highly probable.

 In summary, it is important to obtain prompt evaluation and treatment by your Doctor of Chiropractic as soon as possible as when time passes without treatment, it is more difficult to bring about a reduction of pain and increased motion and, it will generally take longer.  Taking medication for pain only postpones the needed process of restoring movement and function of the neck so that should not be the only treatment.  In general, a “wait and watch” approach is not wise in these types of injuries.

If you or a loved one is suffering with whiplash, sharing this information may be one of most significant acts of kindness that you can give to those that you care about.

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