Whiplash – Something to Think About

Sep 09
car accidents, neck pain, whiplash

Everyone’s heard the story – a friend of a friend got into a car accident and has now has to wear a neck brace for the next four weeks.  It sounds like a simple enough equation: totaled car=whiplash; however, that is not quite the case.  While serious car accidents do very often produce whiplash injuries they are by no means the only type.  Some people have been known to sustain whiplash injuries with as little as a 5mph change in speed, which in itself proves that even a minor fender bender can become a serious issue.

Now, I categorize whiplash as a serious issue for a reason.  It may seem counter-intuitive – after all, people whip their heads around all day long for hundreds of reasons and don’t get whiplash.  However, there is a difference in whipping your own neck around, versus having it moved forcibly from external forces.  The injuries that are experienced by a victim of whiplash are varied from mild to severe, but the constant discomfort and prolapse from normal daily life are very serious indeed.  Think about this – since a whiplash injury affects the neck it therefore affects how well the head and shoulders move; this means that all head and shoulder movement will be at least mildly affected by such a situation.  People use their head movements for eating, conversation and communication, working, exercise, and even relaxing and sleeping!  This means that every part of life will be affected by this type of injury.

As I stated above, whiplash injuries can occur during even minor fender benders.  Firstly, it doesn’t take much for the neck to bend (seeing as though it’s one of the most flexible parts of the body), plus it’s got the heavy weight of skull and brain to hold up.  That being said the Law of Inertia now comes into play (Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remail in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it); if you are sitting in a car that is struck from any angle your body will stay in the same position until it is moved by some piece of the car itself.  Most people sit in a car with their upper legs, rear end, and torso touching the actual seat while every other body part, including the head and neck, are hovering somewhere near a seat cushion without making contact.  This means that the head and neck are very susceptible to being pulled in one direction or another simply because the body is being pulled in different direction first.  Once the head and body are moving together, however, the same rule applies for a different reason.  If the car stops moving the lower half of the body will do so as well, being in contact with the car, but the upper half of the body will continue along the same route it was forced along by the initial crash force.  This means that the heavy head sitting on top of the flexible neck will likely travel further than any other part of the body, possibly beyond the realms of safe movement.

Newton’s first law isn’t the only thing at play here, though.  If it were we would not have to worry about minor fender benders, since the movement in such an accident is minimal.  However, there is Newton’s third law to think about – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  During a major car accident the outer shell and inner framework of the car is usually damaged; while this may seem like a bad thing it actually means that some of the force between the two cars is being absorbed into the metal as folds and tears rather than working its way up to the driver and passengers.  When there is no damage to the car it means no force was absorbed by the car itself, which in turn means that most of the crash’s force makes its way into the bodies of the driver and passengers.  Along with the fact that your body is going to absorb some of the opposite and equal force to a sudden movement, there is also the fact that you are not going to sit passively like a wet noodle.  A normal reaction is to tighten whatever muscles are available to prevent the body from being strained or hyperextended in any given direction.  While this is normal it is not always helpful; the body is providing an involuntary equal and opposite reaction to oppose the movement being forced upon it by the crash, which means that not only are muscles, tendons and ligaments being strained beyond their normal working length, but they are also being tightened at the same time, causing double the injury.  This idea is further heightened by the fact that many people are able to see a crash coming and therefore tighten their muscles in anticipation!

As you can now see, whiplash can come from almost all types of accidents, regardless of the direction, and can seriously affect everyday life after.  The most important thing to remember with a whiplash injury, however, is that the onset of pain can be slow.  No matter what the seriousness of the accident itself your body will release adrenaline, which helps to keep you alert, ready for action, and, unfortunately, from feeling any pain.  Once the adrenaline wears off any muscles that have been strained, sprained, bruised or torn will slowly start to react by building up heat, swelling, tension, and pain.  This, in turn, can spread to other muscles via proximity or by pulling nearby bones out of place, making the injury worse.  The key to beating this downward spiral is getting checked by a Chiropractor after every accident.  Countless times I have had people come in only after being told by their primary care physician that they have nothing wrong with them only to suffer through weeks of unnecessary pain.  Chiropractic exams are designed to discover and treat issues before they cause pain which, you must admit, sounds like a reasonable option after looking at the alternatives.