This is the second of a five-part series titled Common Car Accident Injuries. In this segment we examine whiplash injuries occurring in car crashes. According to the Mayo Clinic, whiplash is usually an injury that occurs to someone whose vehicle is struck in the rear by another. Whiplash is a strain or sprain in the neck area and is the most widely cited injury in auto insurance claims in the U.S., of about 4 million. Many of these injuries will dissipate in a week or two, yet approximately 25% still persist three months later.
What is Whiplash?
The Quebec Task Force is an organization focused on whiplash-related issues who devised a classification system to better differentiate the various types of the condition. They explain whiplash is not a “specific medical condition”; but instead a term to define neck pain and symptoms that result from the sudden “acceleration and deceleration” of the neck. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders & Stroke defines the condition as an injury to the soft tissue of the neck caused by unintended, abrupt movement. When a car is hit in the rear, the body moves forward from the impact and if the head is not supported, it is stretched back and then suddenly snaps forward. The result may be a sprained muscle, bruise to the spinal region, or a vertebral fracture. A large percentage of sprains heal in several weeks, while others may experience chronic pain. A strain occurs when muscle fibers are torn, while a sprain is when a ligament is torn.
Signs of whiplash are usually revealed within 24 hours and may worsen over the following few days. The most common symptoms include:
- Stiffening and pain originating from the lower part of the skull
- Dizziness & fatigue
- Pain when the neck is moved
- Numb feeling in upper extremities.
Some less common signs include:
- Muscle spasms
- Difficulty sleeping
- Hazy vision
- Problems with memory and concentration
- Depressed feelings and/or irritability.
Medication used for pain varies based on severity, beginning with over-the-counter products such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen (Tylenol). The next level would include prescription muscle relaxers or lidocaine injections, often used to numb the region prior to physical therapy treatment. The most severe cases may require prescription painkillers, NSAIDs such as Celebrex, or steroid injections.
Therapy & Exercises
Exercises help to extend the range of motion of the neck. Examples include rolling the head and moving the neck toward the chest. In physical therapy, exercise will be focused on making the muscles in the areas stronger, developing posture, and regaining proper movement.
Cervical collars, composed of foam-like materials are used to hold the head and neck in place. Recently, this practice is less accepted as being effective. Many experts feel reducing the neck's movement leads to declines in muscle strength and encourage exercise to strengthen the region for better recovery.
Acupuncture treats injuries by applying needles to the skin to promote healing. Chiropractic treatment may include stimulating the muscles and manipulating the spine and joints, which may offer pain relief and promote strength. Kneading the neck area muscles through massage often delivers improved feelings. Wearing devices, such as Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulators (TENS), have shown to be effective by delivering electrical current to the area.
The best way to prevent whiplash in automobile accidents is by properly positioning the vehicle's head restraint (head rest). This process begins with positioning the seat at an incline of less than 20 degrees. The head rest should be level with the top of the head and should not have over two inches of space between to restrict head movement. Many vehicles have “active” head restraint systems that automatically adjust to an optimal position.
Annual costs associated with whiplash have shown a pattern of sharp increase. In 2005, the United Nations estimate for the U.S. was $2.7 billion a year. In 2007, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety assessed the annual cost of insurance claims resulting from neck pain as roughly $8.8 billion. In 2017, MKC Medical Management says that approximately $30 billion per year is spent for managing and treatment of whiplash-type injuries.
If you have been in a car accident, you should take whiplash seriously and seek medical attention. The physical and financial costs can add up quickly.
In the next part, we discuss the impact of traumatic brain injuries.