That pain in the neck that won’t quite go away could be more than just a minor irritation; it could be a lingering whiplash injury. The Foundation for Chiropractic Progress (F4CP) examines this phenomenon in their article “Understanding Whiplash and Neck Injuries.” Neck pain is recorded to affect 30-50% of adults on average each year. It might manifest in awkward muscle spasms, headaches, mobile discomfort or loss of proper motion. Generalized pain in this manner often comes from the posterior or back portion of the vertebrae where joints called facets are located and produce the range of motion needed for neck and back movement. Therefore, facet joints tend to be the most common joints adjusted by chiropractors.

Neck sprain or strain, also known as cervical sprain or strain, can be characterized as ‘whiplash’ in severe cases. Whiplash injury, otherwise dubbed hyperflexion/ hyperextension or acceleration/deceleration injury, refers to harsh motion suffered in an accident or other traumatic event that injures the head and potentially surrounding tendons, muscles, ligaments and bones. Immediate care after all personal injuries is paramount for complete healing and rehabilitation. Of the 3 million estimated Americans sustaining whiplash injuries each year, 50% can suffer chronic pain from their injuries, and 300,000 of those individuals can become disabled due to ongoing pain and symptoms.

Treating Whiplash

Standard neck pain can see more swift resolution with improved joint mobility and reduced muscle spasm through diligent chiropractic care. Whiplash injuries are more complex as they include a severe sprain or strain of the tissues of the neck/cervical spine. In short, the tissues aren’t just tight, but they are in fact damaged. The painful snapping back or forward whiplash motion can injure, through a break or fracture, the bones of the skull or the spine. It can also displace the neck and lower skull joints; damage the intervertebral disc between bones; and injure tendons, ligaments, muscles, joints, nerves and other tissues in the neck and head.

The severity of the damage is dependent on the force, speed and direction of impact, the head’s position during impact, barriers that the head could have hit during the event and at what part of the motion the barrier was encountered. All these factors affect the tissues potentially injured and to what extent.

Where Whiplash Comes From

Whiplash is most often associated with car crashes, but that is an oversimplification and certainly not the only cause. Whiplash is a condition that can occur from many kinds of mechanisms that might result in rapid acceleration/deceleration and hyperflexion/hyperextension of the neck and head. Note as well that cars or other vehicles do not have to be speeding to result in a whiplash injury. A slow-moving or stopped car can hit or be hit by a slow-moving car and still cause whiplash.

Whiplash can occur in many ways, including, but not limited to, motorcycle accidents, slips or falls, contact sport injuries, falling off a bike, horseback riding or any activity that might cause a sudden whipping of the head and neck. Unfortunately, physical abuse can also be a factor in whiplash, such as shaken-baby syndrome or an injury sustained in an assault.

Whiplash Symptoms and When to Seek Care

Whiplash can do a lot of damage because it can be so widespread in the tissues of the body. Sometimes, the pain and damage are apparent right away, and other times, the pain and symptoms may not show up for hours, days or even weeks. Some whiplash symptoms that may present themselves include:

  • Pain and stiffness in the neck
  • Pain that worsens with neck movement
  • Less range of motion when moving the head and neck
  • Headaches, often starting from the base of the skull
  • Tenderness or pain in shoulders, arms or upper back
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Blurred vision
  • Numbness or tingling in upper extremities
  • Ringing ears
  • Interrupted sleep patterns
  • Jaw pain
  • Irritable mood
  • Memory issues and difficulty concentrating
  • Anxiety and depression

If lightheadedness, blacking out or other concussion symptoms occur, close monitoring is required, and immediate intervention may be necessary. If you or a loved one is involved in a personal injury or incident that may have involved a jarring of the head and neck, a prompt and extensive examination is needed to ascertain the damage caused by the sprain/strain or severe whiplash. This can help to avoid further unnecessary health complications in the future.

Doctors of Chiropractic (DCs) are trained to understand and evaluate the intricate mechanisms involved in all levels of cervical sprain or strain, including whiplash. DCs assess all the tissues involved to draft a treatment plan tailored to the patient. Potential whiplash injures should be evaluated with imaging studies. Your DC will look for any visible fractures or soft-tissue tears, as well as look at your current state of joint alignment. The normal lordosis of the neck, the straightening of the natural forward curve, will most likely be a bit out of alignment after a whiplash injury. Your DC will strive to correct this issue with established treatment protocols.

Chiropractic care employs natural strategies to fortify joint function, reduce inflammation and lessen nerve interference caused by damaged joints or swelling. DCs favor a wide array of gentle techniques that help particular segments of the healing process. Ideally, these techniques will reduce pain and symptomology, which can limit the need for over-the-counter medications or potentially harmful prescription painkillers. DCs can point their patients in the right direction for their recovery, providing recommendations for supplementary therapies and information gathering, such as ultrasound, electric muscle stimulation or cold lasers. If a cervical collar is recommended, a DC will advise on the proper usage and positioning. Anti-inflammatory nutrition and an exercise regimen designed to stabilize and strengthen the affected tissues should be included in the treatment plan.

References (from original F4CP article)

  1. Carroll LJ, Hogg-Johnson S, van der Velde G, et al. Course and prognostic factors for neck pain in the general population: results of the Bone and Joint Decade 2000–2010 Task Force on Neck Pain and Its Associated Disorders. Spine. 2008;33:S75–S82


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