Each year, more than 3 million Americans experience whiplash, a common neck injury most people associate with car accidents. However, sudden back-and-forth movements that strain or sprain soft tissues in the neck can also occur because of a hard impact or fall. While sudden injuries to the spine often cause immediate pain, this isn’t always the case with whiplash injuries. In fact, it’s not unusual for symptoms to appear days or even weeks after the initial impact, and the unique nature of whiplash can sometimes result in a delay in treatment.
Delayed whiplash is more likely to be experienced when you’re not aware you’ve even sustained an injury. For instance, you may have been in a low-impact car accident and walked away with nothing more than minor vehicle damage and no physical symptoms.
In some instances, the initial stress of the back-and-forth neck motions, which can happen rapidly, causes the body to go into “fight or flight” mode. Basically, this means a sudden rush of endorphins and adrenaline. Endorphins can produce effects similar to mild pain relievers, so symptoms may be masked. Higher amounts of endorphins may linger in the body for hours, days, or weeks after the initial impact, which is why you may not notice symptoms until your body’s chemical balance goes back to normal. When this happens, you may suddenly experience:
• Increased neck pain and stiffness • Reduced range of motion • Pain triggered by certain neck movements • Headaches originating around the base of the skull • Numbness or tingling sensations extending to the shoulders and arms
When symptoms start to develop after the actual incident, patients may not immediately make a connection between what they’re experiencing and whiplash. A doctor or Los Angeles spine surgeon may ask about any possible recent injuries to narrow down a likely cause of the pain. After going through a series of tests likely to include image scans and range of motion tests, a treatment plan will be recommended. For most patients with whiplash-related symptoms, treatment typically involves:
• Gentle exercises to strengthen neck and shoulder muscles • Pain and anti-inflammatory medications • Therapeutic techniques such as massage therapy and hot and cold applications • Injections directly into the affected area
Even if symptoms aren’t severe, a doctor may suggest wearing a foam collar to allow tissues in the cervical spine to heal. Modifying activities may also be recommended to minimize the risk of reinjury. Surgery for whiplash is rarely necessary, especially when symptoms are delayed. Some patients also benefit from:
• Chiropractic care • Acupuncture • Electrical stimulation (mild electrical currents delivered to the neck)
According to results from the longest study done to date on people with whiplash, more than half of all patients still reported chronic pain nearly 20 years later. The most effective way to reduce the risk of experiencing lingering discomfort is to be proactive about treatment. Even if you’re not yet noticing symptoms, a spine specialist can determine if structures in your neck are misaligned, irritated, or damaged in some way so treatment can start sooner rather than later.
If you’re experiencing chronic pain in the neck or back and think you might need minimally invasive surgery, reach out to The Spine Institute today. We specialize in various spinal procedures, including Mobi-C disc replacement, traditional fusion surgery, and XLIF. Los Angeles patients can call 310-828-7757 to schedule an appointment.