What is Whiplash Injury?
Whiplash is a term that describes injury to the neck that occurs as a result of a motor vehicle or car accident. The most common type of car accident is the rear impact, and most typically, the occupant in the vehicle that gets “rear-ended” (hit from behind) is at the greatest risk of injury, including whiplash.
Whiplash injuries can be quite complex and may include a variety of related problems, such as:
- Joint dysfunction. As a result of the whiplash, one of the joints in the spine or limbs may lose its normal resiliency and shock absorption (referred to as the joint play), possibly leading to restricted range of movement and pain.
- Disc herniation. A whiplash accident may injure the discs between the vertebrae, lead to small tears and cause the inner core of the disc to extrude through its outer core. If the disc’s inner core comes in contact with and irritates a nearby spinal nerve root, a herniated disc occurs, with symptoms possibly including sharp, shooting pain down the arm and even neurological symptoms like numbness, tingling and muscle weakness.
- Faulty movement patterns. It is believed that the nervous system may change the way in which it controls the coordinated function of muscles as a result of a barrage of intense pain signals from the whiplash injury.
- Chronic pain. While often resulting in minor muscle sprains and strains that heal with time, more severe whiplash injuries may produce neck pain and other symptoms that are persistent and long-lasting (chronic).
- Cognitive and higher center dysfunction. In some instances, whiplash may affect the patient’s mental functioning, possibly leading to difficulties concentrating, as just one example.
How does Whiplash Occur?
A whiplash accident occurs when one motor vehicle strikes another from behind, causing certain forces to be transmitted from the striking vehicle to the struck vehicle. These forces are then transmitted to the occupant(s) of the struck vehicle, where they have the potential to cause whiplash injury.
Cervical Spine reaction to a Whiplash Accident
There is an inherent stabilization response in the cervical spine that helps protect it from potential whiplash injury:
- The nervous system detects the presence of the impact
- The muscles of the cervical spine, under the direction of the nervous system, contract quickly to try to minimize the affects of the impact on the ligaments and discs.
If this stabilization response is working efficiently following the whiplash accident, there is a greater likelihood of protection and less potential for whiplash injury.
But if the response is inefficient, an injury is more likely, with various types of whiplash pain possibly resulting and whiplash treatment potentially necessary.
Factors affecting the Whiplash Injury
There are several factors that affect the efficiency of the stabilization response to whiplash injury, including:
- Posture at impact
- Overall physical condition
- Awareness of coming impact
It should be known that some of these stabilization responses to whiplash are within the patient’s capacity to control, while others are not.