What is Whiplash?
Whiplash is a non-medical term describing a range of injuries to the neck caused by or related to a sudden distortion of the neck associated with extension. The term “whiplash” is a colloquialism. “Cervical acceleration-deceleration” (CAD) describes the mechanism of the injury, while the term “whiplash associated disorders” (WAD) describes the injury sequelae and symptoms.
Whiplash is commonly associated with motor vehicle accidents, usually when the vehicle has been hit in the rear; however, the injury can be sustained in many other ways, including falls from stools, bicycles, or horses. It stands out as one of the main injuries covered by the car insurers.
How Can Physical Therapy Help?
Your physical therapist’s overall purpose is to help you continue to participate in your daily activities and life roles. The therapist will design a treatment program based on both the findings of the evaluation and your personal goals. Your treatment program most likely will include a combination of exercises.
Your therapist will design:
- Exercises that involve specific movements to relieve nerve pressure and decrease pain and other symptoms, especially during the early stages of treatment
- Stretching and flexibility exercises to improve mobility in the joints and the muscles of your spine, arms, and legs—improving motion in a joint can be key to pain relief
- Strengthening exercises—strong trunk muscles provide support for your spinal joints, and strong arm and leg muscles help take some of the workload off those joints
- Aerobic exercise, which has been proven to be helpful in relieving pain, promoting a healthy body weight, and improving overall strength and mobility.
This might sound like a lot of exercise, but don’t worry: research shows that the more exercise you can handle, the quicker you’ll get rid of your pain and other symptoms.
Your physical therapist also might decide to use a combination of other treatments:
- Manual therapy to improve the mobility of stiff joints and tight muscles that may be contributing to your symptoms
- Posture and movement education to show you how to make small changes in how you sit, stand, bend, and lift—even in how you sleep—to help relieve your pain and help you manage your condition on your own
- Special pain treatments—such as ice, traction, and electrical stimulation—to reduce pain that is severe and not relieved by exercise or manual therapy
Once your pain is gone, it will be important for you to continue your new posture and movement habits to keep your back healthy.
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms reported by sufferers include: pain and aching to the neck and back, referred pain to the shoulders, sensory disturbance (such as pins and needles) to the arms & legs and headaches. Symptoms can appear directly after the injury, but often are not felt until days afterwards. Whiplash is usually confined to the spinal cord, and the most common areas of the spinal cord affected by whiplash are the neck, and the mid-back (middle of the spine).
The exact injury mechanism that causes whiplash injuries is unknown. A whiplash injury may be the result of impulsive stretching of the spine, mainly the ligament: anterior longitudinal ligament which is stretched or tears, as the head snaps forward and then back again causing a whiplash injury.
A whiplash injury from an automobile accident is called a cervical acceleration-deceleration injury. Cadaver studies have shown that as an automobile occupant is hit from behind, the forces from the seat back compress the kyphosis of the thoracic spine, which provides an axial load on the lumbar spine and cervical spine. This forces the cervical spine to deform into an S-shape where the lower cervical spine is forced into a kyphosis while the upper cervical spine maintains its lordosis. As the injury progresses, the whole cervical spine is finally hyper-extended.
Whiplash may be caused by any motion similar to a rear-end collision in a motor vehicle, such as may take place on a roller coaster or other rides at an amusement park, sports injuries such as skiing accidents, other modes of transportation such as airplane travel, or from being hit, kicked or shaken.Shaken baby syndrome can result in a whiplash injury.
Whiplash associated disorders sometimes includes injury to the cerebrum. In a severe cervical acceleration-deceleration syndrome, a brain injury known as a coup-contra-coup injury occurs. A coup-contra-coup injury occurs as the brain is accelerated into the cranium as the head and neck hyperextend, and is then accelerated into the other side as the head and neck rebound to hyper-flexion or neutral position.
How Is It Diagnosed?
- Ask you very specific questions about the location and behavior of your pain, weakness, and other symptoms
- Ask you to fill out a body diagram to indicate specific areas of pain, numbness, and tingling
- Perform tests of muscle strength and sensation to determine the severity of the pressure on your nerves
- Examine your posture and observe how you walk and perform other activities
- Measure the range of motion of your spine and your arms and legs
- Perform special tests, such as the straight leg raise test or the crossover straight leg raise test, that help diagnose a herniated disk
- Use manual therapy to evaluate the mobility of the joints and muscles in your spine
- Test the strength of important muscle groups
If you have muscle weakness and loss of sensation or very severe pain, special diagnostic tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), electromyography, or nerve conduction studies may be needed. Physical therapists work closely with physicians and other health care providers to make certain that you receive an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.
Research shows that in all but the most extreme cases (usually involving muscle weakness or high levels of pain), conservative care, such as physical therapy, has better results than surgery.
If your physical therapist’s evaluation indicates that there are no signs of nerve compression and you don’t have any signs of muscle weakness or numbness, treatment can begin right away. If the evaluation indicates that the herniated disk might be compressing the nerves, your therapist will consult with a physician specialist.