The structure of your neck is made from seven bones that are stacked on top of each other with a shock-absorbing disc between each level. Your neck is relatively flexible, so it relies on your muscles and ligaments for support. "Whiplash" describes a situation where these tissues are stretched too hard or too far, much like a rope that frays when it is stretched beyond its capacity.
Up to 83% of people involved in car accidents sustain some form of a whiplash injury. The extent of your injury can be measured and viewed through several factors. Patients who are struck from behind in a rear-end collision will usually suffer the most significant injury.
Being struck by a larger or heavier vehicle can also greatly increase your risk. Your vehicle does not need to be visibly damaged in order for you to sustain an injury. In actuality, the amount of damage to your vehicle has a very limited relationship to your injuries. Most modern cars have shock-absorbing bumpers that do their best to minimize damage to the vehicle but do not provide much protection to the occupants in low-speed collisions. Rear-end impacts of less than 5 MPH routinely give rise to significant symptoms.
Other factors that increase your chance of sustaining a whiplash injury include: improperly positioned head restraints, wet or icy roads, having your head rotated or extended at the time of impact, and being unaware of the impending collision.
As our bodies begin to grow older, our muscle tissues become less elastic, and our risk of injury increases. Females are on average more likely to be injured than males. People who have pre-existing arthritis are more likely to develop complaints.
Initially, you may notice some soreness in the front of your neck that will usually fade quickly. Ongoing complaints about whiplash often include dull neck pain that will become sharper when you move your head. The pain is most commonly focused in the back of your neck but can spread to your shoulders or between your shoulder blades.
Tension headaches will regularly accompany neck injuries. Dizziness and TMJ problems are possible. Symptoms may also increase slowly over time. Rest may relieve your symptoms for a period of time but often will also lead to stiffness. Be sure to inform us if you have any signs of a more serious injury, including a severe or "different" headache, loss of consciousness, confusion, or "fogginess," difficulty concentrating, dizziness, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, change in vision, nausea, vomiting, numbness or tingling in your arms or face, weakness or clumsiness in your arms and hands, decreased bowel or bladder control, or fever.
Sprain/strain injuries cause your normal and highly elastic tissue to be replaced with less elastic "scar tissue." This process can lead to ongoing pain and even arthritis. Over half of those who are injured in an auto accident will have neck pain up to a year after their accident. Seeking treatment as soon as you are able is essential. If you are riding with others, it is quite possible that they suffered an injury as well. It would be in everyone's best interest to be examined as soon as possible.
Depending on how bad the damage of your injury is, you may need to be cautious about your activities and limit taxing and strenuous activity for a while, but you must understand that pain is a normal reaction to injury and that significantly limiting your activities of daily living may delay your recovery. You should try to "act as usual" and resume normal daily activities as your body allows.
You should also try to avoid wearing heavy headgear, like a hardhat or helmet, if possible. Cervical collars rarely help and should be avoided unless otherwise directed by a medical professional. You can try to apply ice for 10-15 minutes each hour for the first couple of days. Heat may be helpful thereafter. Ask your doctor for specific ice/heat recommendations. Some patients report some success in pain relief from sports creams.