What comes to mind when you hear the word “whiplash?” For many, the term conjures up images of high-speed crashes with debris flying everywhere and the head and neck being jerked violently backward and then forward again in a “whipping” motion―as in a high-speed, rear-end auto accident-followed by a cumbersome foam neck brace that must be worn for weeks or even months. And with one of every 26 Virginia drivers involved in a traffic accident in 2017, it’s important to know that the extreme scenes you may associate with whiplash are not the only motor vehicle accidents that put you at risk for this common injury of the neck and upper spine.
Whiplash, also known as hyperextension/hyperflexion injury, neck sprain, or cervical strain or sprain, is caused by a sudden, severe back-and-forth jerking of the head and neck. It’s a soft tissue injury, meaning that it impacts the muscles, tendons and ligaments in the neck surrounding the upper spine, known as the cervical spine.
While high-speed auto accidents are obviously dangerous, even low-speed collisions can cause lasting damage to human muscles, tendons, and ligaments. About 60% of motor vehicle accidents occur at low speeds of less than 12 mph. Even at speeds of less than 6 mph, soft tissue injuries can occur, causing pain in the head, neck, and shoulder regions. Even if a collision leaves your vehicle without a scratch, it doesn’t mean the soft tissues around your cervical spine weren’t injured. Following an auto accident, whiplash symptoms can take weeks or even months to appear, and they can last for much longer.
Auto accidents aren’t the only cause of cervical spine sprain and strain: Any activity that causes your head and neck to accelerate and decelerate suddenly in a back-and-forth motion can cause the injury. These include football, bungee jumping, roller coaster riding, and falls during sports including skiing and horseback riding.
Not everyone is equally susceptible to whiplash. Due to differences in age, height, and physical structure, some populations are more likely to experience cervical neck injuries than others. Gender plays a role too; thanks to smaller bones and muscles, women are statistically more likely to suffer whiplash than their male counterparts. And don’t forget to take into account the details of the vehicles involved: The way a vehicle’s seats and head restraints are positioned and the relative size and weight of the vehicles involved in the accident influence the likelihood of whiplash, too.
Even the type of collision matters: If you’ve been rear-ended, hit from the side, hit while your car was stopped, or have been in an accident that wasn’t your fault, you may be more at risk for whiplash than an at-fault driver.
What if you’ve been in a car or truck collision but aren’t experiencing neck pain? Whiplash symptoms can vary dramatically from person to person, so if you’ve been in an accident, don’t cross whiplash off the list too soon. Not only can it take time for symptoms to surface, neck pain is just the beginning of possible cervical spine repercussions. Individuals with whiplash may also experience headache, dizziness, or blurred vision; shoulder, arm, or back pain; burning or tingling in the arms, shoulders, neck, or back; decreased range of motion; and even sleep disturbances and difficulties concentrating.
Been in a crash, and suspect you’ve got whiplash? If you’ve heard that the best treatment for whiplash is to push through the pain, take acetaminophen, start wearing an over-the-counter neck brace, or just go about your daily business and hope your symptoms will fade, think again. While symptoms may diminish or even disappear in as soon as a few days, whiplash pain can continue for years. The best way to avoid long-term pain is to seek treatment as soon as possible: If you think you may be experiencing whiplash, it’s important to seek medical help.
Because whiplash is a form of soft tissue damage, MRIs, X-rays, and CT scans are likely to come back “normal” because they are not designed to evaluate damage to muscles and ligaments. Don’t be fooled! While scans like these are useful in identifying underlying structural issues such as fractures that may be contributing to your pain, test results are only part of the picture. Whiplash treatment is provided based on symptoms, not just test results. If you’ve been in an accident and are suffering, a medical professional should be able to suggest medications and exercises to help reduce your symptoms.
If you’ve been in a motor vehicle accident that was not your fault and are experiencing whiplash symptoms, after you seek medical attention you should consult with an experienced personal injury lawyer to discuss the possibility of bringing a personal injury case against the negligent party that caused the accident.
It’s important to keep detailed records of the accident itself, including photos of the damaged vehicles, as well as a comprehensive list of your symptoms and when you started noticing them. You’ll also want to document any treatment you receive and the associated costs.