Once referred to as “railway spine” in the era before cars, whiplash is a fairly common neck injury that occurs when cervical spine muscles and other soft tissues are violently thrust backward or forward. This excessive force may cause issues with muscles that support the neck or damage to one or more of the discs cushioning this part of the spine. While not usually life-threatening, whiplash-related injuries result in about $30 billion in medical expenses each year in the United States.
Though whiplash may require some type of physical therapy to recover successfully, there are more serious conditions affecting the spine that could result in the need for a procedure such as spinal fusion or vertebroplasty surgery.
Here are some key facts to keep in mind if you experience whiplash.
1. Car Accidents Aren’t the Only Possible Cause
While commonly associated with motor vehicle accidents, whiplash simply refers to any abnormal motion within the neck area that causes some type of strain or damage. The most common types of car accidents associated with whiplash are rear collisions where the driver or passenger is in a stationary position. Additional causes of whiplash may include:
- A sudden, sharp twist of the neck beyond its normal range of motion
- Sports-related injuries
- Violent thrusts of the neck while on an amusement park ride
2. Symptoms Can Vary in Intensity and Duration
Studies with crash test dummies have shown that most rear impacts resulting in whiplash cause the lower cervical spine to hyperextend backward while the upper cervical spine hyperflexes forward. The resulting “S” shape can cause a variety of symptoms that can be short-lived or chronic (lasting 3 to 6 weeks or more). Other symptoms associated with whiplash include:
- Neck pain and stiffness
- Reduced range of motion
- Shoulder pain and stiffness
- Muscle spasms
- Burning or tingling sensations
- Arm pain or weakness
- Dizziness or vision problems
3. Diagnosis Includes Looking for Changing Symptoms
The initial treatment for whiplash involves a physical examination and evaluation of the symptoms presented. Image tests (X-rays with the head leaning forward and backward, CT scans, and MRIs) may be done to determine if there is a fracture anywhere within the cervical spine or if spinal discs have been damaged. A follow-up examination is usually scheduled about a week later to look for possible changes in symptoms since issues sometimes develop after the initial trauma due to lingering inflammation and other internal reactions.
4. Non-Surgical Treatments Usually Provide Relief
Conservative (non-surgical) options often provide relief for most patients. Cervical collars were once the go-to treatment for whiplash. However, research has shown that prolonged immobilization may slow the healing process. Following an initial period of rest to allow tissues to heal, appropriate range of motion exercises tend to be more effective for restoring flexibility and muscle strength. Treatment may also involve:
- Trigger point injections
- Anti-inflammatory medications
- Soft or hard bracing for a limited time
- Physical therapy and gentle stretching exercises
- Occupational therapy to help patients return to work
5. Steps Can Be Taken to Minimize Whiplash Risks
Due to the unexpected nature of most instances of whiplash, prevention is not always possible. Even so, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of possible injuries to the neck area. For instance, athletes should pay attention to their form and wear protective gear that properly fits. Additional preventative measures to consider:
- Being mindful of posture while driving (slouching takes your head off the headrest)
- Adjusting head restraints in your vehicle to ensure your head/neck has the proper support
- Doing periodic warm-ups and stretches to keep neck muscles flexible
- Adhering to safety recommendations while on amusement park rides
Whether you’ve experienced whiplash or a more serious injury, it’s important to take steps to alleviate your discomfort. At The Spine Institute, we specialize in a wide variety of spinal procedures, including decompression surgery, dynamic stabilization, and Mobi-C disc replacement. Dr. Hyun Bae is a trusted spine surgeon for good reason. Schedule your appointment today by calling our office at 310-828-7757.