Whiplash Injuries: Why They Happen And What You Can Do To Help Prevent It?
It is an event that is often unexpected but frequently unforgettable. You are stopped in your car at a red light, patiently waiting for the signal to change when you hear the unmistakable sound of a car behind you slamming on its brakes just before it hits your car. Within the next few seconds, you are quickly and forcefully jostled inside your car, and by the time you catch your breath, the accident is over. However, in that very short period of time your head, neck, jaw, upper body, and nervous system are subjected to a series of forces that are 2-3 times greater than the impact of the collision. Commonly known as “whiplash” the effects of this cervical acceleration/deceleration injury or CAD can be short-term but can also last for a long time with potentially debilitating consequences.
What happens to your body when you are in a “whiplash” accident? Within less than one second these events occur. As the force of the collision moves your car forward your body is lifted up in the seat and your head/neck is moved backward. When your car stops your body is dropped back onto the seat and your head and neck move forward. The speed at which this occurs and the force that is applied to the head and neck can cause injury to the spinal joints, ligaments, muscles, and nerves of the head and neck region of the body. In addition, 50% of all people who experience head and neck injuries also experience low back pain from these forces.
What are the common symptoms and when do they occur? Symptoms can range from extreme pain to mild stiffness and decreased movement of the head and neck. Symptoms can occur immediately but more commonly begin to occur within a few hours or a few days following the accident. This “delay” in the onset of the symptoms is often caused by the adrenaline rush that you experience immediately following the accident that masks the symptoms. It is also common for the inflammation to take several hours or days to reach the point that causes you to experience symptoms.
Are whiplash injuries commonly caused by high-speed accidents? No. In fact, 8 out of every ten rear-end collisions are caused by cars traveling between 6-12 mph. Although the amount of vehicle damage from these low-speed rear-end collisions is minimal the injuries sustained by the person in the car that has been struck can be significant.
If you know you are about to be hit by another car what can you do?
- Always wear your seat belt and shoulder harness. Seat belts and shoulder harnesses provide important stabilization of the body during an accident minimizing injuries.
- Make sure your head restraint is properly positioned. If your head restraint is positioned too low or is too far away from your head it minimizes the effectiveness of the head restraint. Your head restraint should be positioned no further than two inches away from the back of your head. The top of the head restraint should be at the level of your head between your ears and the top of your head.
- Keep both hands on the steering wheel and tighten the muscles of your arms to reduce the amount of jostling your body experiences from the accident.
- Shrug your shoulders bringing them closer to your ears. Recruiting the larger muscles of the upper body help to reduce the movement of your head and neck.
- Keep your head and body pointed forward. This in combination with having both hands on the wheel and shrugging your shoulders helps reduce any twisting movements to the head and neck.
- Keep your foot on the brake. Keeping your foot on the brake during the collision helps to reduce the rapid backward and forward movements of your head and neck. If a car is moving forward at the moment of impact it increases the forces placed on the head and neck increasing the chances of injury.
- Apply ice immediately following the accident and be evaluated. Even if you do not experience significant pain following the accident – placing a wet cloth over the injured area and applying ice on top of the wet cloth for periods of 15-20 minutes will helps reduce the inflammation. If you experience any symptoms regardless of the intensity it is best to be evaluated by a healthcare professional that specializes in the neuromusculoskeletal system such as a chiropractor, neurologist, or orthopedist.
Dr. William Madosky