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I was in a Texas Car Crash – Should I be Concerned About Whiplash?
You are in a hurry to get to an appointment, and you have just been rear-ended. You get out of your car and take stock of the damage. You catch your breath and think you are feeling fine. A quick switch of driver information, some pictures and the insurance swap, and you think this might resolve itself without much hassle. Then the whiplash sets in and you realize you may not be out of the woods just yet.
What is Whiplash?
Whiplash is a layman’s term to describe an injury to your neck which usually results from a sudden, forceful motion of the cervical spine, and the surrounding soft tissues and muscles. This type of injury can occur any time your body experiences high force jerking motions. While whiplash from a car accident is very likely, this injury is also common in sports injuries, a slip and fill, or even riding a roller-coaster. If you are the victim of this type of injury the resulting jerking motions result in overstretching of the tissues in your body.
When your tissues, namely your joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles are forced to stretch tearing can occur. The best way to imagine this is by thinking of a rubber band, by stretching out a band as far as you can it will eventually tear, causing the band to break. This type of tearing is similar to the extreme jerking your tissues feel when pushed to react to sudden movements, like being rear-ended at a traffic stop.
This tearing of your tissues happens at an extremely micro scale, referred to as microtrauma. The tears are affecting single fibers that together make up your tissues. The stretching results in tears which then results in sprains and strains to your tissues. We all need our muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints to perform day-to-day activities, but with an injury to these tissues it becomes painful to move and function normally.
Symptoms of Whiplash
For many people, these symptoms do not show for a period of 12-24 hours and sometimes not presenting for days or weeks. This delay can be attributed to your body’s own defenses; immediately following an injury your body will produce adrenaline to help you cope with the stressful situation. As this adrenaline wears off, your tissues begin to swell and stiffen, resulting in inflammation to your affected muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints.
According to the Mayo Clinic symptoms of whiplash can include:
- Neck pain;
- Shoulder pain, back pain, and pain in the extremities;
- Burning, numbness and tingling;
- Dizziness and visual disturbances;
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears);
- Memory and concentration problems;
- Trouble swallowing;
In order to really understand the full scope of a whiplash injury from a car accident or truck accident, you need to understand how whiplash can have an effect on body movement. Typically specific parts of your body are affected such as your facet joints, discs, nerve roots, ligaments and muscles. In most cases of whiplash one or a few of these are injured.
An injury to your tendons will ultimately affect your range of motion, which will lead to added stress on your joints. If you have irritation to your facet joints in the upper neck you could have additional resulting pain in the base of your skull. An irritation to other joints can result in pain around your shoulder blade. If your whiplash results in your nerves being damaged you can experience symptoms of burning, numbness, tingling or shooting pain in your extremities.
What spinal conditions can whiplash cause?
Most of the time, the pain caused as a result of whiplash is as a result of soft tissue injury. However, if the accident is serious enough it can cause more serious spinal conditions like a herniated disc, advanced degenerative disc disease, fractures, stenosis and others.
A herniated disc occurs when the inner, gelatinous material of the spinal disc pushes out through the rigid outer layer. This can cause pain if the fluid starts to press up against the sensitive nerve roots that exit the spine. Herniated discs typically occur in older patients who have experienced a lifetime of natural disc degeneration. However, they can also be caused when severe amounts of pressure have been exerted on the spinal discs; often through a traumatic accident.
Symptoms of a herniated disc typically include:
- Severe pain in the neck
- Arm or leg pain
- Tingling, numbness or weakness in the extremities (likely your arms)
Advanced Degenerative Disc Disease
Degenerative disc disease is a natural condition that affects just about every person with a spine. It’s simply the process of your spinal discs wearing out over a lifetime of constant wear and tear. However, in the case of a serious car accident, it’s possible that the spinal discs experienced a serious amount of damage and degeneration occurred at an increased rate.
Facet Joint Disease
Facet joint disease is a condition where the facet joints in the spine degenerate to the point of causing pain. Facet joints run all the way up the spine and allow for movement and flexibility in the back. Similar to other major joints in the body like the knees and shoulders, these joints are lined with cartilage that can naturally wear out over time.
Will My Whiplash Pain Go Away?
The pain from whiplash typically goes away after about 6 weeks. However, a vast majority of the pain should ease up a couple of days after the accident as the soft tissues torn and sprained begin to heal and inflammation goes down.
While painful, whiplash typically doesn’t affect the vital nerves, bones or other structures located within the neck and pain can be reduced with ice, pain-relieving medication and rest. Which means that your prognosis is often good, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
That said, about 12-50% of people still report experiencing symptoms, like headaches or neck pain, after a year and others will continue to exhibit symptoms the rest of their lives.
The amount of time that pain lasts is typically dependent on the seriousness of the accident, the amount of damage that was caused to the spine and soft tissues and whether or not you had any preexisting spinal conditions beforehand.
It is why we always suggest clients follow up immediately with medical professionals. By taking a MRI or CT-scan of your spine, a neurosurgeon will be able to better determine the symptoms that you’ll likely experience as you’re recovering from your accident and whether or not they will be long-term.
Can I Prevent a Whiplash Injury?
What you can do to avoid a future whiplash injury? The first thing you should always do is adjust your headrest so that it is positioned right behind your head. The top of the rest should be at the same height as the top of your head. When you sit you should try to maintain as little space between the back of your head and the headrest, even maybe needing to incline your seat forward.