Whiplash is a commonly used term for a neck sprain and strain injury caused from a rear-end automobile collision. When stuck from behind, a force travels through the vehicle and through the body. This force causes the head to be forcefully snapped backwards. A split second later, there is a rebound from the acceleration force, which causes the head to snap forward. This type of trauma is referred to as an acceleration/deceleration injury to the spine and can result in a sprain, strain, or fracture of the spine.
In a whiplash injury, the long ligament that runs down the front of the neck is often sprained when the neck is snapped back. However, the most damaging effect of a whiplash injury comes from the deceleration phase. This is when the head rebounds and snaps forward and the long ligaments that run up the back of the vertebrae (neck bones) are usually sprained (torn.) Other ligaments, especially the capsular ligaments between each vertebra, are also usually damaged during this action. Damage may also commonly occur to the muscles of the neck and in some cases, the discs may become damaged or herniated.
Collision studies have shown that the greatest degree of stress in a whiplash injury occurs between the 4th and 5th vertebrae when the neck is snapped back and between the 5th and 6th vertebrae when the neck snaps forward. If the neck was turned to one side, the extent of the injury is usually worsened, as shear force and torque (rotational force) is added.
The degree of injury from a whiplash accident is determined by a variety of factors. The types of vehicles involved, speed, seat and headrest construction, whether the vehicle from behind applied the brakes before the collision (decreases the force) whether the vehicle in front had the brakes applied when it was struck (increases the force) are just a few of these factors. Also, each injured person’s height, age, and current state of health (including any prior injuries to the neck) all play an important role in determining the extent of the physical damage.
The full effect of the damage from a whiplash injury may not be experienced until one to three days after the accident. This is primarily due to two known factors. The first factor is adrenaline. Large amounts of a hormone called adrenaline are released into the body when an accident occurs. The affects of adrenaline and the effects of shock may make many people initially unaware of a neck injury. The second factor is that for the first 72 hours, the body responds to the injury with a barrage of chemicals. These chemicals create swelling and in the presence of swelling comes stiffness, and pain. This is why it is important not to state “you are fine” immediately after an automobile accident that snaps you head about. It is important to seek care immediately and have yourself examined for a whiplash injury.
Early treatment is essential to help control the swelling process. Preferably, care should be obtained within the first six hours after the injury. If you have been in an automobile accident and were not taken to a hospital, you should request an emergency appointment from your Doctor of Chiropractic. Your chiropractor can instruct you on the proper use of ice, rest, and other measures to reduce the swelling immediately. Ultrasound treatments or therapy with passive range of motion to the cervical spine may be started after a diagnosis of cervical sprain and strain (whiplash) is obtained.
With early chiropractic treatment, several advantages are gained. For the first 24 – 72 hours, a natural swelling process occurs. Treatment during this phase reduces the amount of swelling. This improves your chance for a more rapid and better recovery. Corrective measures are also easier to apply if the initial phase of swelling is handled properly through early treatment
There are long-term advantages to early treatment as well. One major advantage is the decreased risk of arthritis forming in the joints. Joint arthritis in the neck, called degenerative joint disease, can occur if the swelling in the joints remains too long or if the tissue damage cannot be adequately repaired.
Chiropractors treat thousands of neck injury cases each year. Your chiropractor can help determine the extent of your neck injury through examination and x-ray. A course of treatment can then be outlined to help in the recovery process. Chiropractic treatment can help reduce the initial swelling, aid in the removal of metabolic products that are created when tissue is injured, and help restore proper function to the cervical spine and neck muscles.