You’re not alone. Whiplash associated disorders (WAD) are very common neck injuries caused by a rapid distortion of the cervical vertebrae. Such distortion occurs when the head undergoes a sudden stop while moving at speed, jarring the muscles and ligaments of the neck, which move forwards and backwards quickly. Whiplash is most typically associated with motor vehicle accidents but may also occur in contact sports and as the result of falls from bicycles, chairs and horses.
It’s a matter of anatomy, physiology and physics. There is a good reason that the neck is especially vulnerable to this type of injury. The adult human head weighs 10-11 pounds (about 5 kilograms). At rest, this weight is comfortably supported by the bones and muscles of the neck. However, rapid movement backward and forward puts a much larger load on the cervical vertebrae and ligaments holding them in place. The anterior longitudinal ligament that runs down the back of the spine is particularly at risk of stretching or tearing during a rapid collision.
Getting the right help quickly can make a big difference. In many cases, the injuries sustained during an auto or sports accident are not immediately apparent. Musculoskeletal injuries to the neck, back, hips and shoulders might not show any symptoms until days, weeks or even months after the initial trauma. Therefore, it is important to seek a medical evaluation immediately after your accident even if you do not feel seriously hurt at that moment. We know based on the research and from our own clinical experience that your recovery will be faster and more complete if problems are diagnosed and treated early.
No two whiplash cases are exactly the same. The symptoms of whiplash associated disorders range from mild neck pain for a few days after the injury to headaches, arm pain and long-term restricted movement of the neck. Studies have shown that whiplash injuries can also constrict blood flow to the brain, leading to light-headedness, poor concentration and fatigue.
Since 1995, the Québec Task Force (QTF) scale has been widely used to assess the severity of WAD and how they should be treated. The grading scale works like this:
0 No complaint about the neck. No physical signs.
I Neck complaint of pain, stiffness or tenderness only. No physical signs.
II Neck complaint and musculoskeletal signs. Musculoskeletal signs include decreased
range of motion and point tenderness.
III Neck complaint and neurological signs. Neurological signs include decreased or absent
deep tendon reflexes, weakness and sensory deficits.
IV Neck complaint and fracture or dislocation.
In addition to grading the injury based on your symptoms, a chiropractic physician can assess the injury by performing a thorough examination, palpating the affected area and observing your neck movement and any associated pain.
You have choices. There are several treatment options available, and your chiropractor will make his or her recommendations based on the nature and severity of your injuries. WAD often responds well to a combination of therapies, including chiropractic manipulation/mobilization, hot and cold treatment, cold laser and structured exercise and stretching programs designed to restore a full range of motion.
Pain medication may be required for grade II injuries and above (usually NSAIDs to reduce inflammation but narcotic pain relief may sometimes be prescribed for grade III WAD) and collars may also be used to keep the neck in place for 72 hours after grade II and III injuries to give the muscles and ligaments time to recover.
Grade IV whiplash (involving fractures or dislocation) is a serious injury and your chiropractor will likely refer you to another medial specialist for treatment based on the exact circumstances. For this type of injury, treatment is likely to consist of several months of neck immobilization and possibly surgery. Most whiplash injuries are much less serious than this and are more likely to be a cause of pain and discomfort than a true medical emergency.
Your injury may require a team approach. Depending on the nature of your injury, a chiropractic physician may recommend a team approach to treatment that incorporates other healthcare disciplines, potentially including neurology, therapeutic massage and physical therapy.
If you or someone you care about is suffering from chronic neck or back pain due to an auto, sports or work accident (even one that happened some time ago), there are ways to help relieve the symptoms and restore function. Our goal is always to help our patients recover as quickly and completely as possible so that they can return to an active lifestyle. We encourage you to call or visit our office to learn more. We’re here to help!