What is Whiplash Anyway?

We’ve all heard someone say they’ve had “whiplash” before and it’s causes range from car accidents to slips on the ice and everything in between. But what is whiplash, what tissues in the body are damaged by a whiplash injury, and most importantly… how should it be treated?

What Causes a Whiplash Injury?

First, the rapid “back and forth” motion of the cervical spine stretches and compresses the ligaments, tendons, joints, and muscles in the neck and upper back. In a rear-end accident for instance, during the initial impact, the torso (the area above the waist and below the neck) is pushed forward followed by the neck and head. This happens in just the first 50 to 100 milliseconds (ms) of the accident. In the next 100 to 200 ms, the lower part of the neck extends backward while the upper part flexes forward and then accelerates backward again where it is (hopefully) stopped by the headrest. Finally, there is another change in direction where the head and neck are thrown forward, this time (hopefully) stopped by a seat belt or airbag. All of this happens in about 350 ms which is about the same amount of time it takes to blink an eye!

What Tissue does a Whiplash Injury Affect?

So what actually causes your pain? Is it injured muscles, stretched ligaments, or something else? The most common medical term used to describe a whiplash injury is “cervical sprain/strain”. This refers to injuries of the ligaments, tendons, and muscles in the neck and upper back. Muscles are what move the bones and joints in the body. Muscles tend to be fairly elastic while ligaments (which hold the bones together around a joint) tend not to stretch much at all. Muscles are attached to bones by tendons, and the term “strain” is used to describe an injury to a tendon or muscle while a “sprain” typically refers to an injury to a ligament or joint.

Both strains and sprains are graded on a scale of 1 (mild), 2 (moderate) or 3 (severe). How quickly your injuries heal depends on the severity of your injury and the treatment you receive. Of course, not all car accidents are the same. The age and size of the vehicles involved, a raised or lowered headrest (please raise your headrest!), and road conditions all play a role. Differences in the age, health and physical build of the people in an accident mean that a single accident can cause one person to suffer injuries while the person sitting next to them is relatively unharmed. Whiplash from a car accident can diminish your ability to do the things you love like hiking, skiing and gardening and even the things you NEED to do like performing at work or caring for your children.

What’s the Best Treatment for Whiplash?

The symptoms of a whiplash injury can take a few days to a couple of weeks to develop. After an accident, it’s always best to see a provider that specializes in recognizing these symptoms. Beginning your care right after you experience a whiplash injury helps minimize its long-term effects. This also helps get you back to “normal” as quickly as possible. Your healthcare provider should focus on restoring function to the areas injured in your accident to ensure they heal properly. After any injury, our bodies will start the healing process whether we treat them or not. Without proper treatment, those strains and sprains will create scar tissue which is like a scab on a cut. Scar tissue doesn’t bend, twist or stretch like healthy tissue. This can lead to long term problems like joint pain, muscle weakness, and loss of mobility.

As you learned above, there are many different causes of the pain associated with whiplash injuries so it makes sense that there would be different treatments needed to address all of those problems. The “ideal” treatment plan uses a combination of therapies provided by a team of providers working together, to treat your specific injury. The providers at Integrative Health and Rehabilitation in Denver, Colorado use a combination of acupuncture, chiropractic, dry needling, massage therapy, physical therapy, and trigger point injections to help address your injuries and provide quality pain relief.

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