Whiplash injuries can present themselves in a number of different ways, including headaches, neck pain, upper back and shoulder pain, fatigue, low back pain and cognitive changes. It is difficult to predict a specific pattern of symptoms for each individual due to the variety of factors that play into the whiplash process. Such factors would include: angle of impact, the speed of the vehicles involved in the collision, and also the age, size, and physical condition of the individuals in the accident. In addition, the symptoms of whiplash often have a delayed onset, taking sometimes weeks or months to present themselves. Here are some of the more common symptoms that present themselves following whiplash trauma:
According to over 90% of injured individuals, neck pain is the most common symptom and complaint following a rear-end collision. The pain is usually described as radiating up towards the head, into the mid-back, and across the shoulders. In whiplash injuries, all of the tissues that are located in the neck can become affected, including the spinal discs, the facet joints, ligaments, muscles and nerves.
Neck pain that results from a car accident is commonly caused by facet joint pain. This pain is located at the back of the neck, either slightly on the right or the left of center, and is tender to touch. The pain in the facet joints cannot be seen and diagnosed on x-ray or MRI. Only palpation of the neck, and specific orthopedic testing can diagnose facet joint injury.
Another common cause of post-traumatic neck pain is disc injury. The outer wall of the disc consists of many bundles of fibers that may be torn or injured during a whiplash injury. This damage causes inflammation and pain, and left untreated, can lead to the degeneration of the discs or a herniation. Herniations create compression or irritation of the nerves that travel through the cervical spine, often creating severe pain, numbness, and weakness into the shoulder, arm, and hand.
During the weeks that follow a whiplash injury, a major cause of pain is the damage to the ligaments and muscles of the upper back and neck. It is the primary reason patients notice limited range of motion, or tightness in their spine. As the muscles are able to heal, the amount of pain can decrease but abnormal movement can remain. Uncorrected abnormal motion can result in future damage to the ligaments and other tissues, creating recurrent, chronic neck pain.
Next to neck pain, headaches are the most common complaint of whiplash injury, which affects more than 80% of individuals involved in an auto accident. These headaches are usually due to injury to the muscles, facet joints and ligaments of the cervical spine, referring pain into the head. To help reduce the pain and discomfort associated with your headache, it is important to treat the support structures in your neck with chiropractic care. Less commonly, headaches after a car accident can be the result of brain injury.
Another less common, but very painful disorder that can be associated with whiplash is temporo-Mandibular Joint dysfunction (TMD – often referred to as TMJ). This condition usually begins as pain, popping and clicking noises in one or both sides of the jaw with talking or chewing. If not evaluated and treated properly, issues with the TMJ can worsen and lead to face and ear pain, headaches and difficulty eating. Our chiropractors have training in diagnosis and treatment of TMJ problems, and often co-treat with other practitioners to get you the results you need.
Our brain is very soft and is suspended in a liquid called cerebrospinal fluid. During high-speed movement of the head, the brain can bounce against the inside the skull, which can lead to bruising or bleeding inside the brain. When this happens, patients may lose consciousness or suffer symptoms of a concussion. In these instances, confusion or disorientation is reported after a collision. Minor brain injury can have long-term consequences including confusion, inability to concentrate, irritability, loss of sex drive, disturbances in sleep patterns, emotional instability, personality changes, or depression. In some cases, the nerves that are responsible for the sense of smell, vision and taste can become injured, resulting in loss of taste, visual disturbances and changes in sense of smell.
Injury to the tissues in the neck due to a whiplash injury can result in dizziness. This is sometimes due to damage to of the vestibular, or balance mechanism within the inner ear, due to bruising, or other trauma. This commonly results in vertigo, or a spinning sensation. More commonly, dizziness after a car accident is caused by tightened neck muscles due to strain, and protective spasm due to ligament instability. When these muscles tighten, they flood the balance system in the brain with muscle tension sensation, which under normal circumstances, is used to determine if the head is level. When the signals are altered (increased due to tension), the body's balance system cannot accurately detect if the head is in the proper position, or that the body is upright, resulting in the sensation of unsteadiness, dizziness, or vertigo.
Low back pain
The majority of people assume that whiplash only results in injuries to the neck. However, the low back is often injured as well. Low back pain is present in over half of all rear-impact car accidents where an injury was reported, and up to three quarters of crashes resulting from side-impact. This can be attributed to the significant amount of compression that the low back experiences during the first two phases of the whiplash injury, even though the amount of flexion-extension that it undergoes is not as significant as that in the neck.
To read about your treatment options, and recovery from whiplash, click here!