Studies show that more than two (2) million Americans will be involved in motor vehicle accidents each year. Over 25% of those affected will sustain a whiplash injury. Whiplash is a general term which is used to describe a range of injuries, typically to the cervical spine (neck) where the head moves suddenly in one direction and then the opposite, causing a “whip-like” motion. Although whiplash occurs in many ways, we will focus this paper on whiplash as it relates to the simplest motor vehicle accident, without putting attention on the other motions that always occur to some extent such as rotation or side-bending.
As physical therapists, we see it all from severe injuries including concussion and other traumatic brain injury, burns, and other orthopedic issues. Although many people who suffer minor accidents and whiplash injuries recover quickly from the initial mechanism with rest, ice and anti-inflammatories, there are others who suffer in pain for what feels like an eternity. If you’ve suffered what many people see as a minor accident, yet are experiencing a lot of pain and functional limitations, you are not alone. There can be many complicating factors to even the simplest injury or accident where the individual has rotation or sidebending involved as a result of their posture and position when the accident occurred, the way they were impacted and/or their general health and fitness levels prior to the injury.
Let’s use the simplest situation as our example, in a whiplash injury the head moves forward and then suddenly backwards or vice versa. As this occurs the muscles, bones/joints and ligaments on the posterior aspect (back) of the neck get stretched quickly then suddenly shortened while those tissues anterior to (in front of) the spine do the opposite. The human head is estimated to weigh between 15-20 pounds so this weight at the end of a stick (your neck), if you will, adds significant forces to the structures of the upper back, neck and shoulders and potentially the low back or even a head injury can occur due to the sudden direction change and potential impact of the head to the steering column or headrest.
No matter how the accident occurred, your physical therapist should take the appropriate time on your first visit to learn all the necessary information, including prior and other current medical history information. They will then conduct a thorough examination assessing bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, tendons, reflexes and neural conductivity among others as appropriate. This evaluation combined with your history, current presentation and goals enables them to create a program which specifically addresses you. Every injury and every person is different and this requires a skilled and committed physical therapist to work with you and your doctor(s) to help you return to the lifestyle you deserve.
If you or someone you know is looking to improve their overall health and well-being and need help from a professional, look online, ask your physician or warm-network for recommendations to a qualified physical therapist with experience in treating the cervical spine, whiplash injuries both motor vehicle related and non-motor vehicle related.