"Whiplash" describes what happens when these tissues are stretched too hard or too far, much like a rope that frays when it is stretched beyond its capacity.
Auto accidents are the leading cause of whiplash. Up to 83% of people involved in an accident will suffer a whiplash injury. The extent of your injury can be predicted by several factors. Patients who are struck from behind in a rear-end collision generally suffer the most injury. Being struck by a larger or heavier vehicle also increases your risk. Your vehicle does not need to be visibly damaged for you to be injured. In fact, the amount of damage to your vehicle has little relationship to your injuries. Most modern cars have shock-absorbent bumpers that minimize damage to the vehicle but do not necessarily protect the occupants in low-speed collisions. Rear-end impacts of less than 5 MPH routinely give rise to significant symptoms.
Other factors that increase your chance of injury include: improperly positioned head restraints, wet or icy roads, having your head rotated or extended at the time of impact, and being unaware of the impending collision. As we age, our tissues become less elastic, and our risk of injury increases. Females are more likely to be injured than males. Those who have pre-existing arthritis are more likely to develop complaints.
Symptoms may begin immediately or have a delayed onset. Initially, you may notice some soreness in the front of your neck that generally fades quickly. Ongoing complaints often include dull neck pain that becomes sharper when you move your head. The pain is generally centered in the back of your neck but can spread to your shoulders or between your shoulder blades. Tension headaches commonly accompany neck injuries. Dizziness and TMJ problems are possible. Symptoms may increase over time. Rest may relieve your symptoms but often leads to stiffness. Be sure to tell your provider if you have any signs of a more serious injury, including a severe or "different" headache, loss of consciousness, confusion, or "fogginess," difficulty concentrating, dizziness, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, change in vision, nausea, vomiting, numbness or tingling in your arms or face, weakness or clumsiness in your arms and hands, decreased bowel or bladder control, or fever.
Sprain/strain injuries cause your normal healthy elastic tissue to be replaced with less elastic "scar tissue." This process can lead to ongoing pain and even arthritis. Over half of those who are injured will have neck pain up to a year after their accident. Seeking early and appropriate treatment, like the type provided in our office, is critical. If you are riding with others, it is quite possible that they too were injured. It would be in every passenger's best interest to be examined as soon as possible.
Depending on the severity of your injury, you may need to limit heavy activity for a while, but you must understand that pain is a normal reaction to injury and that significantly limiting your activities of daily living may delay your recovery. You should try to "act as usual" and resume normal daily activities as soon as possible. Neck pain tends to respond better when you maintain or add aerobic exercise in your daily routine, i.e. walking, etc. Avoid heavy lifting, and take frequent breaks from prolonged activity, particularly overhead activity. Avoid wearing heavy headgear, like a hardhat or helmet, if possible. Cervical collars rarely help and should be avoided unless otherwise directed. You can apply ice for 10-15 minutes each hour for the first couple of days. Heat may be helpful thereafter. Ask your provider for specific ice/heat recommendations. Some patients report partial relief from sports creams.