Whiplash: Causes and recovery after an auto accident

| Car Accidents, Personal Injury

What is whiplash?

Victims of auto accidents often suffer from a few common neck injuries associated with crashes.

There are several injuries that are especially common, but none more prominent than “whiplash.” The name for this injury comes from the motion that one’s head makes in a rear-end accident. The head flicks back then forward forcefully like the end of a whip.

The common term “whiplash” really refers to a neck sprain or strain. A sprain occurs when the ligaments in the neck are stretched or torn. A strain comes from pulling a muscle, stretching or tearing it. In a collision the neck often hyperflexes and/or hyperextends, meaning the muscles are contracted or stretched past their normal limit. That sudden movement can cause neck pain and stiffness, headaches (most commonly at the base of the skull), dizziness, blurred vision, and/or fatigue. The symptoms may be masked temporarily by the adrenaline rush from the car accident, and sometimes show up hours later. In addition, some victims also experience difficulty concentrating, memory problems, ringing in the ears, sleep disturbances, and/or irritability, according to the Mayo Clinic.

A doctor may take X-rays to rule out bone problems, such as a fracture. MRIs and CT scans can help detect damages in soft tissue like muscle and ligaments. Doctors sometimes feel inflammation in the neck with their hands and can make a diagnosis. Sometimes there are no outward signs that an injury has occurred, but symptoms of whiplash can still appear.

The most common treatment for whiplash is physical therapy exercises to stretch and strengthen the neck muscles. It’s important to start treatment soon after a whiplash injury occurs, as chronic neck issues can result from ignoring the injury. Though foam neck collars to stabilize the neck used to be normal in the treatment of whiplash, they are used only rarely now, only the first few days after the injury for a few hours at a time, if at all. Neck movement has been shown to heal whiplash quicker than immobility. Icing the neck and upper back helps with pain and inflammation after the injury, while heating that area helps loosen muscles to do neck stretches. If over-the-counter painkillers aren’t enough, a doctor may prescribe stronger painkillers, do lidocaine injections (numbing medicine), and/or prescribe muscle relaxants, according to the Mayo Clinic.


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How is whiplash treated?

Most people suffering from whiplash recover within a few months or less, others may experience its effects for years. Early treatment is the best way to ensure a speedy recovery. Do not delay seeing a doctor if you experience any symptoms of whiplash.

People often suffer from herniated discs after auto accidents, known commonly as a “slipped disc” or “ruptured disc.” Between vertebrates in the spine there is a soft rubbery gel known as a disc, which allows the spine flexibility and absorbs shock. The impact from an auto collision can cause that disc fluid to be squeezed out the outer edge of the disc and toward the spinal canal, where it may press against the sensitive spinal cord. The spinal cord carries nerves from the brain and is the center of function for arms and legs. The pressure on the spinal cord in the neck may cause symptoms; including “shooting pain in one arm, neck pain, headaches, weakness in one arm, tingling (a “pins-and-needles” sensation) or numbness in one arm, loss of bladder or bowel control (If you also have significant weakness in both arms or legs, you could have a serious problem and should seek immediate attention), and/or burning pain in the shoulders, neck, or arm,” according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS).

The vast majority of herniated discs do not require surgery to heal. OTC drugs, muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatory medication may help in the healing process. Ice and heat can be applied to reduce pain and swelling and relax the neck muscles. Physical activity should start slowly with physical therapy exercises. Pain from a slipped disc may last weeks or months depending on the severity and treatment. A regime of cortisone shots may be administered if the pain is persistent. Surgery is required in some cases. For slipped discs in the neck, doctors will often fuse together the two vertebrae surrounding the discs, restricting movement. Full recoveries are possible even if the injury needs surgery. NFL quarterback Peyton Manning had a fusion surgery on his neck and went on to continue playing professional football afterward.

Another common injury from car accidents that can affect the neck and spine is a cervical radiculopathy, known as a “pinched nerve.” Nerves stemming from your spine connect to the arms and legs and supply feeling to them. They send electric pulses (from brain to spine to limb) that movement of the limbs and digits. In an auto accident, the nerves can be pinched by a bone spur or part of a herniated disc, causing problems in the nerve’s functions. These may manifest as a numbness of the skin where the nerve goes, pain where the nerve goes, and weakness in the muscle where the nerve goes, according to legal publisher NOLO.

X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and electromyography may all be used to rule out other conditions and pin-point where the nerve damage is. A soft collar to stabilize the neck and ease the “pinching,” but will weaken the neck if worn for too long of periods. Physical therapy is an effective form of treatment to stretch and strengthen the neck. Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (like aspirin and ibuprofen), oral corticosteroids, prescription painkillers, and/or getting spinal injections of steroids, can help reduce pain and swelling, according to the AAOS. Surgery is necessary for some victims to get back to normal health.

In all cases, the victim of a neck injury should see a doctor and start treatment promptly. Taking these steps will help ensure a full recovery and a return to life as normal.