Neck pain after an automobile accident is a commonly reported injury. Whiplash, also referred to as a neck sprain or a neck strain, happens when damage occurs in the soft tissue in the neck. Even minor accidents that occur at relatively slow speeds can be the cause of significant neck pain where a person has experienced whiplash.
In the medical community, whiplash is known as “cervical acceleration-deceleration (CAD) syndrome.” When whiplash occurs, a person’s neck and head are rapidly and suddenly thrust backward and forward causing the portion of the spine located just underneath the head, in the upper region of the back, to experience stress.
In an automobile accident, whiplash occurs when the following events happen:
- A vehicle is hit from the rear and the vehicle’s seat is violently pushed against an occupant’s back.
- The occupant’s torso moves forward, but the spine does not not causing an abnormal compression of various parts of the occupant’s cervical spine.
- As the occupant’s torso moves forward, their head slams forcefully back into the seat. This movement can cause soft tissue damage in the front of the occupant’s neck.
- The occupant’s head then bounces of their seat and is thrust forward at a rapid pace.
- While this is happening, the occupant’s seatbelt is working to keep the torso retrained. The occupant’s head, however, still accelerates forward and produces a whip-like motion.
Whiplash causes symptoms like neck pain and upper back pain which must be treated immediately despite the fact that these symptoms may not develop for days, weeks or even months later. Not all individuals experience the same effects of whiplash, which can vary from minor discomfort to the following:
- Stiffness in the muscles of the neck or the upper back, often causing difficulty when a person attempts to turn their neck
- Spasms in the neck or the upper back
- Pins-and-needles sensation in the neck and spine, which may be the result of nerve damage
- Secondary pain associated with movement of the neck, including but not limited to headache and dizziness. Often, these are the same symptoms associated with a concussion.
- Difficulty swallowing or hoarseness. These symptoms typically indicate that a person experienced damage to the esophagus and larynx.
- Difficulty maintaining balance and lack of coordination
- Shoulder pain
- Upper back pain
- Mental health issues
- Difficulty falling and staying asleep due to an inability to find a comfortable resting position
Whiplash is diagnosed by a doctor and should be treated immediately. CT scans or MRIs may be ordered to determine whether a person sustained a herniated disc or a serious ligament injury. Likewise, X-rays may be ordered to diagnose bone fractures. However, CT scans and MRIs are better at identifying soft tissue injuries than a simple X-ray.
Whiplash injuries can be treated using the following methods:
- Encouraging the injured person to stay as active as possible
- Using a brace to temporarily immobilize the neck for a short period of time, usually less than a week, to control severe pain
- Applying ice or heat to control pain, inflammation or muscle spasms or tightness
- Taking medications prescribed to reduce pain, swelling, and muscle spasms
- Spinal manipulation may be necessary to help restore the normal positioning of the affected muscles and joints
- Participating in physical therapy to increase circulation, restore range of motion, and encourage healing
- In the case of a more serious whiplash injury, patients may be encouraged to receive trigger point injections
- While less common, surgery can be required to treat herniated discs that do not heal with more conservative and less invasive treatment methods
If you or a loved one suffer from any symptoms associated with neck pain after an automobile accident, West Coast Wellness can help. Our team of orthopedic surgeons, interventional pain management doctors and therapists have been helping people eliminate pain and regain their life and health since 1984.