How Serious Is Whiplash After a Car Accident? Is It Preventable?

Whiplash is a common and painful injury from car accidents. While almost everyone has heard the name, most people don’t have a clear idea of what whiplash is, how serious it can be, or how to prevent it.

Whiplash is essentially the adult version of “shaken baby syndrome.” Women, the elderly and people with certain chronic or degenerative conditions are at increased risk. The symptoms range from pain and swelling to cognitive issues such as difficulty concentrating and memory loss.

How Do Car Accidents Cause Whiplash?

Whiplash is a tearing of the muscles, tendons and ligaments in the neck that occurs when the body is exposed to a sudden jolt, such as in a car accident, a fall, or a blow to the head while playing sports. The injury is most common in rear-end collisions, but can occur from a collision from any direction. It doesn’t have to be a high-speed crash — whiplash can occur in car accidents involving speeds of only 15 mph.

Consider the physics of a car accident. In a collision, the car is abruptly accelerated forward (or in another direction). Everything in the car, including your body, resists this sudden forward motion, which is why you feel pushed back in your seat. Braced against the seat, your torso is carried forward with the car. If your head is not braced, it can be jerked back for a second or so.

The jolt of the crash can whip your head up and back, tearing muscles and other structures in your neck. Your neck’s reflex reaction is to pull your head forward, but that can be overdone in a car accident, making the injury worse.

What Are the Symptoms of Whiplash?

Often, the symptoms of whiplash are not immediately apparent after a car accident. They typically take 12 to 24 hours develop, and the symptoms may get worse every day until properly treated. Whiplash commonly takes several months to heal with appropriate medical treatment, but about 18 percent of patients experience chronic pain for as long as two years after the accident.

Common symptoms of whiplash can occur in the neck, shoulders, back, and arms, and can include:

  • Pain, stiffness, numbness, tingling and/or swelling
  • Muscle spasms
  • Weakness or temporary loss of movement in the neck
  • Headaches, dizziness, ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Blurred vision or other vision changes
  • Cognitive issues such as problems concentrating, memory loss and irritability
  • Depression and sleep interruption
  • Difficulty performing daily activities at home or work

Diagnosis often involves x-rays, CT scans and MRI’s. Treatment can require stabilization of the neck using a foam cervical collar, pain medication and physical therapy. It may also require interventions for depression and sleep issues.

How Can I Reduce the Risk of a Whiplash Injury?

Your first line of defense against whiplash is to wear seatbelts and shoulder straps and to properly position your headrest. The top of the headrest should be just below the top of your head. Everyone in the car should routinely adjust the headrest just as they routinely fasten their safety belts.

Keep in mind, however, that whiplash can be caused by a collision from any direction. If your head snaps to the side, for example, the headrest will not be in a position to protect you.

After any car accident, be aware of your symptoms. If you are experiencing any neck pain, be sure to have yourself evaluated by a doctor. Early treatment is the most effective.

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