Whiplash takes place when a person’s neck suddenly extends due to a violent force, often from a car accident.
What is Whiplash?
In auto accidents, the driver or passengers’ bodies will move forward while their head moves back and then is whipped violently forward. As the accident throws the occupants head backward and then forward, the anterior longitudinal ligament, which runs down the exterior surface of the spine and is responsible for providing stability, stretches or tears. Studies show that both the lower and upper parts of the cervical spine move beyond its normal range of motion during a rear-end accident.
Many whiplash victims also damage the trapezius muscle or supraspinatus muscle in the upper back. In more serious cases, the vertebral discs can be injured, leading to tears and the inner core of the disc to extrude. This is referred to as a herniation and can result in disc injuries or cause irritation to a nerve. Shooting pain, numbness, and tingling sensations may occur and sometimes require surgical intervention.
As many as 3 million whiplash injuries occur every year in the United States. The costs associated with these injuries include not only the $29 billion spent every year on direct medical expenses and litigation, but also include decreased productivity, missed work, emotional distress, and long-term disability.
Factors Influencing a Whiplash Injury in a Car Accident
Not every car accident results in whiplash to the occupants. Even in serious car crashes, there are some occupants who may only suffer a minor degree of soreness or stiffness that dissipates within a few weeks. However, for other victims, they suffer chronic pain and disability that can last a lot longer. Some of the factors that can influence whether an occupants suffers a whiplash injury include the following:
- Awareness of impending collision
- Gender: Women are more likely to suffer whiplash since they have smaller bony structures and less neck muscles than men
- Pre-Existing Conditions: This includes degenerative changes, previous whiplash injuries, prior spinal fusion surgeries, or arthritis.
- Delay in Receiving Treatment
- Age: Older occupants are more likely to suffer whiplash in a car accident because their musculature and bony structures are not as strong as younger people.
- Seats: bench seats are more often linked to whiplash than bucket seats
- Headrest: The further away the head is from the headrest at the time of the impact, the greater the risk of injury
What Symptoms are Associated with Whiplash?
Most people involved in a car accident know immediately whether their head snapped back and forth upon impact. If, however, the occupant became unconscious during the car accident, there are a handful of symptoms which typically appear within 24 hours of a car accident for whiplash victims:
- Neck stiffness
- Increasing pain in the neck
- Decreased range of movement in the neck
- Arm numbness
- Blurred vision
- Disrupted sleep
- Memory problems
One aspect of whiplash is that the aforementioned symptoms may not manifest for several hours, days, or even wees following a car accident. Sometimes, victims delay treatment when these symptoms appear because they do not realize they are related to the accident. This can create medical and legal issues since a victim may delay treatment. Legally, insurance companies are responsible to pay for all harms and losses caused by the car accident. Upon review of the medical records, an insurance adjuster may not accept the alleged injuries as causally related to the accident if there is a significant delay in treatment.
How is Whiplash Diagnosed?
There is no definitive test for diagnosing whether a victim suffered a whiplash injury. Rather, diagnosis is made when doctors exclude other potential injuries, which contributes to the controversy relating to the injury.
If, following a car accident, a victim begins to experience any of the aforementioned symptoms, they should seek immediately medical attention. When presenting to a medical provider, the doctor will assess the victim’s range of motion and whether any movement causes increased pain. The doctor will also assess reflexes and strength in various limbs.
Depending on the complaints and mechanism of injury, the doctor might also need to order an imaging to rule out other conditions that might contribute to the neck pain. Depending on these tests, the doctor might discover a more serious injury than whiplash, such as a fractured vertebra, which would require a difference course of treatment.
How is Whiplash Treated?
With proper treatments, an injury victim should recover from whiplash and return to a normal range of motion. Treatment typically consists of rest and pain management. Many whiplash victims control pain by using ice or heat, over-the-counter medicines and muscle relaxants or prescription painkillers. In addition to medication, physical therapy plays a crucial role in recovery. The overall goal of treatment is to reduce pain, restore function, and strengthen the affected muscles so that proper healing occurs and the chances of chronic pain is minimized.
Some victims require more advanced forms of treatment if physical therapy is not helping reduce the symptoms. Specifically, epidural steroid injections are performed by a pain interventional specialist. This type of injection targets the space surrounding the membrane that covers a victim’s spine and nerve roots. A steroid injection into this space sends the needed medication directly to the area that needs the most help and can provide relief for up to a few months.
Some victims may have a long road of recovery in front of them. To help them on that journey, treating providers should assist by providing instructions on self-care. They should underscore the need to reduce stress and get adequate sleep. They should emphasize the importance of eating a balanced diet and continuing physical therapy.
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