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What Is a Whiplash Injury?

Whiplash, also known as cervical acceleration-deceleration syndrome (CAD), occurs when the human body confronts the laws of physics.  More specifically, when someone accelerates, whether in a car or in some other way, the parts of their body that are in motion will stay in motion unless an external force slows them down.  When a sudden impact, like a car collision, brings the body to a halt, the head wants to keep traveling.  It yanks on the neck, snapping it backwards and forwards causing damage to ligaments, muscles and other soft tissues and injuring vertebrae and vertebral joints in the process.  Those who have whiplash often develop neck pain and stiffness within a few days of the accident.  However, research shows it may take months before the symptoms of a whiplash injury to show up.  Other symptoms that may be involved with a whiplash injury include headaches, blurry vision, shoulder pain, back pain, jaw pain, anxiety and dizziness.

Rear-end auto collisions most commonly cause the injury, but collisions from the front or side, contact sports, falls, and even amusement park rides can cause neck injury as well.  Usually, someone in a stopped or slow-moving car gets hit from behind and doesn’t have time to react; the whole cervical acceleration-deceleration process takes only one-twentieth of a second.   In rare and extreme cases, whiplash can cause a vertebral fracture, which can lead to severe spinal cord injuries.  While the vast majority of whiplash injuries do not involve fractures that lead to instability, it’s important to have your healthcare practitioner evaluate and manage the injury.  In severe cases, this may necessitate the use of an MRI or CAT scan, and possibly a cervical collar to stabilize the neck.

The cervical spine is composed of seven separate bones called vertebrae.  Ligaments attach to these vertebrae to provide stability and support the neck, and muscles attach to provide movement.  There’s also a disk between every vertebra that acts like a shock absorber, and a capsule that surrounds the joints and provides stability by limiting their range of motion.

During whiplash, damage usually occurs when the neck overextends (moves too far backward), because while the chin prevents the head from moving too far forward, there’s little to stop it going back.  This happens so quickly that the supporting structures can’t react. The ligaments and joint capsules usually get overstretched, the muscles get strained and the vertebrae are forced beyond their normal range of motion.  When this happens, the whole spine can become stressed, causing changes in position, excessive inflammation and swelling.  Sometimes, the trauma is so severe that it can even lead to visible changes in the spine’s shape.  Even if you aren’t in pain and don’t see any change in the shape of your back, you should see your chiropractor after any whiplash injury.  I have seen many patients over the years that were injured in an auto accident without realizing it, and then they end up in my office 10-15 years later wondering why their neck is in such a bad shape.  If they would have had their neck checked out after the accident, they could have prevented more serious problems from developing later on.

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