Most of us are aware of the term whiplash and its association with car accidents, especially rear end shunts. Whiplash can present at greatly varying levels of intensity which do not always seem to correlate well with the impact of the accident. Often there is a traumatic injury to the neck causing neck pain, stiffness and headaches. The injury occurs when the neck is thrown backwards and then suddenly forwards with a hard force. Chiropractic treatment can reduce the pain and associated symptoms during the healing stages and also speed up the healing process.
All car accidents will impart trauma to the body whether it is a ‘minor’ rear end collision at 5 mph or a major crash. In minor cases the effects are not felt immediately and therefore not necessarily attributed to the car accident.
The neck is one of the most mobile regions of the entire spine and has to support our head which weighs about 4kg. Therefore at the time of impact there is usually excess movement forwards and backwards with significant force applied. In some cases this trauma may be further exacerbated by hitting the dashboard or window. This sudden, severe movement of the neck which we are often unaware is going to happen causes trauma to the spine and muscles.
When the impact happens the body immediately responds to protect the area. The muscles tighten and go into spasm which then prevents the joints from moving freely; therefore stiffness is just as common a symptom as pain. The severity will be determined by many different factors including speed at the time of impact, awareness of impending accident, the position of the headrest, angle of impact, position within the car and also any pre existing injury.
Whiplash type injuries can also occur from other types of accidents such as a car accident from the side, riding accident, water skiing, or head injury from a fall or diving accident.
Apart from the most common symptoms of whiplash; neck pain, stiffness and headaches, one can also experience imbalance, dizziness, nausea, ringing in the ears and tingling or numbness in the arm. Sometimes there is also associated back pain depending on the impact.
The neck is so vulnerable because it has an abundance of special nerves called proprioceptors. Proprioception is the term given to the feedback system that our body has which tells the brain where our limbs are. For example if you are sitting normally and reading this text, your brain knows that you are not upside down or lying down! This is such a fundamental thing that we never think about it but it is vital for survival. After an injury or trauma to the neck this feedback system is disrupted causing dysfunction in the body; resulting in the imbalance, dizziness, headaches, nausea and nerve irritation often associated with whiplash.
Whiplash can be put into different groups depending on the severity of the injury:
- Group 1 is the mildest form which is normally felt within a couple of days of the injury. The mildest form heals within 6 months and may be effectively treated by a chiropractor.
- Group 2 is more severe where the problem causes limitation of movement of the neck and is felt hours or a day after the accident. Sometimes one needs to be signed off work. Chiropractic treatment can help even this type of injury, but the normal healing for this type can be from 6 months to 2 years.
- Group 3 is the most severe form of whiplash which is felt directly after the accident. In this type there is associated damage to the nervous system or a disk in the neck. The healing process after this severe form of whiplash is very long, sometimes it can take many years. In severe cases such as a fracture emergency surgery is needed.
As with any injury, regardless of the cause, it should always be dealt with as soon as possible as this will help to minimise damage and any secondary compensations that can arise. Chiropractic care is often very successful in treating the pain associated with whiplash; however it can depend on the degree of injury. Your chiropractor will examine the neck and associated structures to diagnose the problem. Many different techniques can be utilised including adjustments to the spine, gentle mobilisation and a variety of soft tissue techniques aimed at restoring the correct motion and function to the joints and surrounding musculature. Treatment will greatly vary from person to person depending on the structures involved and the degree of injury.
In order to minimise the risk for a whiplash injury one can take simple preventative action. Take a look at your car because car accidents are the most common reason for injury. Make sure your head rest is at the right height it should be the same height as the middle of the back of your head. Of course always wear your seatbelt.
Your neck is often put under stress and you can do a few things to minimise problems; always sit with good posture, sleep on a good mattress with a supportive pillow for the neck and head, don’t sleep on your front and don’t swim with your head out of the water
- Stand against a door or a wall with your head facing forward and move your eyes so you look towards the two, four, eight, and 10 o’clock positions. Repeat this a few times. This eye movement causes a slight movement in some deep muscles in the back of the head.
- Next, take a step forward and perform the following movements.
- Bend the back of the head carefully forward as if taking a bow. Return to the starting position with your head straight and facing forward.
- Draw the chin in towards your neck and bend the head carefully forward. Return to the starting position. Bend the head backwards far enough to look at the ceiling. Return to the starting position.
- Tilt the head sideways, so the right ear is near the right shoulder. If possible try to maintain the glance at a fixed point at eye level. Return to the starting position. Repeat this action with the head tilted to the other side.
- Turn the head as if trying to look backwards over the shoulder, first to the left and then to the right. Imagine following a horizontal line on the wall at eye level.
- You can also use a beach ball or a soft ball to exercise the head and neck muscles. Place the ball between the wall and the forehead and then try to move it around on the wall in circles or figures of eights. Repeat the exercise, this time placing the ball between the back of the head and the wall.