What really causes whiplash? First, “Whiplash” is a layman’s term for the condition that occurs when the neck and head rapidly flex forward and then backward or sideways at speeds so fast the muscles in the neck and upper back can’t prevent the movement from occurring. This sudden force exceeds the normal range of motion (ROM), causing injury to the “soft tissues” of the neck (muscles, tendons, and ligaments). Typically, whiplash is associated with car accidents (motor vehicle collisions -“MVC”s) but can also result from injuries like falling on the ice and banging the head, sports injuries, and being assaulted, including “shaken baby syndrome.”

The History Of Whiplash

“Whiplash” was first used in the 1920s to describe injuries to pilots landing on aircraft carriers in the ocean. The pilot’s heads were thrown forward and then rapidly backward as they came to a sudden stop. The term “whiplash” is the same as “cervical hyperextension injury,” “acceleration-deceleration syndrome,” cervical sprain (meaning ligament injury), and cervical strain (meaning muscle/tendon injury). Despite this, the term “whiplash” has continued to be used, usually about MVCs.

What is the Real Cause of Whiplash?

As mentioned above, it’s impossible to stop our head and neck from moving beyond their normal range of motion during an accident. It takes just 500 milliseconds for whiplash to occur during an MVC. In fact, it takes just 1000 msec to contract the cervical and thoracic spine muscles voluntarily. “Low-speed” accidents of just 5-10 mph cause most whiplash injuries.

These “low speed” injuries occur because the vehicles don’t absorb the energy from the collision. Lower-speed accidents do not produce enough force to “crush” the metal (less damage to the car). That means the vehicle absorbs less energy from the collision, transferring it to the passengers. A perfect example of this occurs in NASCAR or Formula One car crashes. These vehicles break apart so the driver absorbs less force, minimizing collision-related injury. Sometimes, all that’s left after the crash is the cage surrounding the driver.

What Are Some Whiplash Symptoms?

Symptoms of whiplash can occur immediately after, within hours, or several days after an accident. Therefore, less severely injured areas are sometimes ignored in favor of treatment of more seriously injured areas. They often become more noticeable after the more acutely injured areas improve. In fact, the most common symptoms of whiplash include:

Neck pain after an MVC can radiate to the mid back (thoracic) area and even into the arm and hand. Arm pain often comes from a compressed cervical or thoracic spinal nerve. Traumatic brain injuries aka concussion) can also occur, even if the head does not strike anything in the vehicle. While symptoms of TBIs vary, they can include difficulty completing tasks, losing concentration “mid-thought,” and increased tiredness or fatigue.

The symptoms of a TBI can also resolve within six weeks of the accident, with a 40% chance of symptoms occurring three months post-injury and an 18% chance of continued symptoms up to two years later. Unfortunately, there is no reliable way to predict the long-term effects of a TBI. Research has shown that early Chiropractic treatment can have better effects than waiting to seek treatment. Beginning treatment as soon as possible after an injury improves the results.

Some Less Common Symptoms of Whiplash

Besides neck pain, headaches, and decreased ROM in the neck and back, here are some other issues that result from a whiplash-type injury.

  • Suboccipital headaches (headaches at the base of the skull)
  • Pain and tenderness in the neck, shoulders, upper back, or arms
  • Tingling or numbness in the arms
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness

Some people also have the following:

  • Blurred vision
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Depression

What Really Causes Whiplash?

What really causes whiplash? Whiplash injuries result from forceful, rapid back-and-forth neck movement, much like the “cracking” of a whip. Whiplash injuries most often result from rear-end car accidents. However, whiplash injuries can also result from sports accidents, physical abuse, and other traumas like falls. Whiplash injuries can also be referred to as “sprain/strain” injuries, but there are many causes of this type of damage.

Some patients with whiplash injuries will improve within a few weeks by following a simple chiropractic treatment plan, including Chiropractic adjustments, icing, and home exercise. However, some patients may experience chronic neck pain and other long-lasting complications. Regardless of the cause of your pain, early treatment is crucial.

What really causes whiplash
What really causes whiplash?

When Should You See a Doctor for Whiplash?

Suppose you are experiencing pain, stiffness, or other whiplash symptoms after an injury. In that case, it’s vital to get prompt treatment and an accurate diagnosis and rule out more serious injuries like fractures and head injuries (traumatic brain injuries (TBI).

Examples of How Whiplash Injuries Occur

Whiplash injuries often result from a forceful flexion and extension of the upper back and neck. This rapid motion can injure bones in the spine, disks between the bones, ligaments, muscles, nerves, and other tissues in the neck.

Whiplash injuries can occur from:

  • Auto accidents – Rear-end collisions cause most whiplash injuries.
  • Physical abuse or assault – Whiplash can also result from getting punched, shaken, or falling. Whiplash is a common injury seen in shaken baby syndrome.
  • Contact sports – Football tackles and other sports-related collisions can sometimes cause whiplash.

Complications of Whiplash Injuries

Most people who have whiplash feel better within a few weeks and don’t seem to have any lasting effects from the injury. However, some people have pain for several months or years after the injury.

However, predicting how whiplash patients will respond to treatment is difficult compared to other types of injury. Often, patients may be more likely to have chronic pain if their first symptoms were intense, started rapidly, and included:

  • Severe neck and back pain
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Pain that spread to the arms

Some of the risk factors linked to more severe injury from whiplash include:

  • Previous Whiplash injury
  • Advanced age
  • Existing lower back or neck pain
  • Speed of the vehicles involved

Auto accidents, sports injuries, and simple “slip and falls” can cause a whiplash injury. Early evaluation and treatment for your whiplash injury will minimize long-term pain and disability. Want to hear from some of our happy, pain-free patients? Check out some of our 5-Star reviews. Looking for a Denver Chiropractor? Use the button below to schedule an appointment with us today, or call (303) 424-7171.  Our office is conveniently located for patients in Arvada, Denver, and Wheat Ridge, Colorado!