What is whiplash?
Whiplash describes an injury to the neck caused by sudden movement of the head in any direction (forward, backward and side). However, this is an extremely general term and could pretty much relate to any injury to the neck relating to sudden movement. In most cases whiplash is used to describe injuries to the neck sustained because of a road traffic collision (“RTC”) and this article will focus on this mechanism. As a side note, the term “whiplash” is mostly used to describe injuries to the neck, the same mechanism can also be applied to anywhere on the spine.
The neck during a RTC
During an RTC (forward or rear collision) the head is first pushed backwards into the headrest, the headrest is present to prevent the head from moving too far backwards in accidents. However, because this can happen at quite a speed, a concussion is a possible outcome of a car accident. After hitting the headrest the head is “whipped” forward and the seatbelt prevents further movement of the trunk. Obviously all of this happens in a very short space of time meaning that in a standard RTC (30 miles per hour collision, average weight person) the people involved experience a staggering 30 g-force, the equivalent of 2.4 tons of force.
What structures are involved in a whiplash injury?
As stated above, “whiplash” is an extremely general term used to describe neck pain after sudden movement. This definition doesn’t explain what actually in the neck causes pain.
During the sudden movement in whiplash, the muscles and ligaments at the front of the neck and back of the neck stretch quickly and this causes small micro tears within the tissues which cause pain and stiffness. Additionally, the spinal discs are put under immense pressure during a collision which can cause nerve symptoms (referred pain, pins and needles, loss of muscle power and numbness). All in all, nearly every structure is affected by a collision, even at low speeds and can contribute to pain after the accident. This is why, an umbrella term like “whiplash” is used as there is no one structure which causes the pain but many.
How do we treat it and how long will recovery take?
When any soft tissue (ligament, muscle etc) is injured within the body a process of repair (as seen on the right) starts. This process generally takes around three months before it completes. Physios work to positively impact on this healing process through both hands on therapy and home exercises. Some examples of treatments may be massage, spinal manipulation, acupuncture and a home strengthening programme.
Generally, people recover from whiplash in about three months. However, for those with more serious injuries, this process may take longer. In many cases the RTC may cause people to go into a state of shock and there may be psychological elements to the symptoms, and the person may require some form of talking therapy to aid in recovery (which Joints and Points Healthcare also provide).
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