I recently had an experience in which a close family member was involved in a rear-end car accident. Luckily, I was able to take care of her immediately, and keep the damage to a minimum. But, she had many questions about whiplash, and I realized that this type of injury is often misunderstood. Here is a primer on this painful injury, and my best advice on how to limit the pain and get back to your normal self after an accident.
What is Whiplash?
Whiplash is the term we use to describe the injury that occurs when the head or body is whipped forward and backwards, like in a car accident. The weight of the unsupported head moving forward, while your restrained body is pulled in the other direction creates a motion like a whip in the spine. Just like cracking a whip generates a lot of force at the end of the whip – which causes the loud bang – the forces are amplified in the spine with whiplash. Since it happens in a fraction of a second, your muscles do not have time to fully protect the joints, and damage to the muscles, ligaments and bones can result.
How is Whiplash Different from a Normal Muscle Injury?
If you are suffering from whiplash, you might notice that it doesn’t heal on the same timeline that even a severe muscle strain follows. When you tear a muscle, it generally heals in, at most, a few weeks. The body creates a scar, and in most cases, you are good as new. Why can whiplash take months or years to get back to normal? It seems that when a muscle tears normally, the injury occurs in one section of the muscle, horizontally across the direction the muscle contracts in. Kind of like a cut across your finger. The body just pulls the two sides together and the repair is as strong as it ever was.
Whiplash, on the other hand, appears to be an overstretch injury to the entire length of the muscle. Instead of one area to be sewn back together, the muscle fibers throughout the muscle need time to be reconstructed on a microscopic level. Additionally, since the muscles do not perform their protective job completely, other structures in the neck – such as facets, ligaments and discs – are also injured. The presence of damage to these structures complicates the healing process, and makes it take longer to get everything right.
Immediate care of Whiplash
The first step after a car accident is to rule out serious injuries. Fractures in the neck and bleeding in the head need to be diagnosed immediately to avoid severe consequences. Severe pain or strange symptoms after a car accident should be evaluated at the emergency room.
Once life threatening injuries are ruled out, I believe that the first 12-24 hours after a whiplash injury are critical in minimizing the amount of damage that occurs in the muscles and tissues around the neck. When cells are damaged, they spill out their insides into their surroundings. Unfortunately, the insides of cells contains material that can damage healthy cells. Limiting the inflammation that occurs right after a car accident, is essential to containing the problem. This can be done with the application of cold packs for 20 minutes at a time for the first 24 hours after a whiplash injury. Over the counter topical creams can limit inflammation. If you can limit the damage early, I think you give yourself the best chance of recovery in the shortest time possible.
Continuing treatment for whiplash
A chiropractor is a great place to start after a whiplash injury. Physical medicine, such as massage, modalities and manipulation, is the starting point of treatment for whiplash. Restrictions that arise in the joints from the injury should be mobilized to allow the muscles to heal as efficiently as possible. Chiropractors also work with other health professionals, such as neurologists and orthopedic surgeons, and can make referrals to these specialists if necessary.