The most common type of car accident is a rear-end collision, in which the occupant of a vehicle gets hit from behind. This type of crash can force the occupant’s body and head to move in opposite directions where the neck joints align, resulting in what is commonly called whiplash. It does not take a particularly high-speed or powerful crash to cause whiplash, and even someone involved in a low-speed fender-bender can end up with this injury.
Who Is Most at Risk for Whiplash?
Some of the factors that affect the severity of a whiplash injury include the victim’s posture at impact, his overall physical condition, whether or not he was aware of the oncoming impact, and gender. Women in general are more frequently and seriously injured by whiplash than men due to less muscular bulk and smaller bone structure, resulting in less protection of the cervical spine.
Front-seat passengers tend to suffer neck injuries more frequently than rear-seat passengers, and taller individuals may be at greater risk for hyperextension injuries because they typically receive less protection from the back of the seat and headrest since their heads often extend above the seat.
The elderly are at a particularly high risk for whiplash since as we age, muscle size and strength decrease, the soft tissues of the body become less elastic, and the intervertebral discs tend to hold less fluid and become more fragile. Older discs do not have the same capability to cushion nerves, bone, and joint structures.
Symptoms of Whiplash
Common symptoms of whiplash include:
- Neck pain and stiffness
- Blurred vision
- Reduced range of motion of the head and neck
- Difficulty concentrating
- Numbing, burning or tingling in the neck, face, and arms
- Muscle spasms
- Lower back pain
- Arm and hand weakness
Some cases of whiplash improve in just a few weeks, while others may take a year or more to fully heal, and still others may result in a chronic, debilitating, and long-term condition. Treatments that are effective for whiplash injuries include:
- Mild pain relievers
- Heat packs
- Wearing a soft collar to relieve some of the pressure that the head puts on the neck
Whiplash is often difficult to diagnose, since the majority of its symptoms may not appear until days after the injury. This delay has resulted in the widespread belief that whiplash victims fabricate or exaggerate their injuries for financial gain, which is often not the case. Whiplash is a very real and painful condition experienced by many accident victims.
Common Misconceptions About a Whiplash Injury
One major misconception about whiplash injuries is that if the vehicle does not sustain damage (such as in a low-speed crash with minimal impact), then a whiplash injury is not possible. In reality, low-impact collisions can produce a higher degree of impact upon the occupants because of the lack of crushing metal to absorb the forces of impact, resulting in a greater degree of force applied to the occupants of the vehicle.
Another misconception is that if an X-ray doesn’t show a whiplash injury, the patient doesn’t have one. The reality is that X-rays only show bony fractures and vertebral displacements, not soft-tissue injuries like whiplash, which will never show up on an X-ray.
So although it has been said, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” this is definitely not the case with a whiplash injury.
Image by Ryan Weisgerber