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Whiplash : Neck Pain Series Part IV

Our final topic of the Neck Pain series, covers the serious and sometimes complicated issue of whiplash.  Whiplash is also medically known as cervical acceleration-deceleration (CAD) syndrome. 

Most cases of whiplash are caused by car accidents where the person has been rear-ended. Other potential whiplash causes, while comparatively rare, can include assault, bungee jumping, roller coaster, football, falls while skiing or during equestrian events, and other high-impact activities where extreme acceleration-deceleration forces might be applied to the cervical spine. Whiplash can occur at speeds as low as 5 mph.

The Biomechanics of Whiplash
The process of a whiplash injury sustained in a car accident can vary depending on many factors, including the angle of the collision. Usually the collision happens from behind, resulting in a whiplash injury that can be considered to occur in five general phases:

  •  Car gets hit from behind, which causes the seat to push against the back. The spine then gets loaded with forces that compress the cervical spine upward against the head.
  • The torso (in contact with the seat) continues to accelerate forward but the head (not in contact with the seat yet) does not. As a result, the cervical spine’s natural C-shape (lordosis curve) temporarily becomes an unnatural S-shape. The abnormal compression and shearing forces can potentially damage inter-vertebral discs, facet joints, and other neck structures.
  • Person’s head slams backward into the accelerating seat. Soft tissues at the front of the neck are likely to be injured here as the neck rapidly extends backward.
  • The head bounces off the seat and now accelerates forward.
  • The seat belt restrains the body (likely preventing a much worse injury) and the neck rapidly flexes as the head whips forward. Soft tissues at the back of the neck are likely to be injured here.

You may feel pain quickly or you may not develop symptoms for several hours, weeks or even months. Despite the deceiving nature of a whiplash, more often than not immediate damage has occurred. Your neck (cervical spine) contains muscles, ligaments, tendons discs, joints, and nerves confined to a relatively small area. Whiplash can injure all these body components.
Besides the neck and upper back, pain from a whiplash may even extend into other areas of the body, such as the arms and shoulders. You may suffer muscle stiffness, burning or tingling sensations as well as headaches and numbness.

What Can Affect Whiplash Recovery?
The severity of your whiplash and recovery from it depends on many factors. Your age, sex, physical condition and posture can have a major effect on the acuteness and length of symptoms.

  • As you age, you lose flexibility and strength in your neck, disc and ligaments. This is why older adults may require more extensive rehabilitation for this injury.
  • Women suffer whiplash more than men. Experts believe this could be because men have stronger neck muscles and women have smaller bone structures.
  • Health conditions like arthritis and previous whiplash can play a role.
  • If you’re a smoker or you don’t exercise, your chances of healing quickly are reduced.
  • Poor posture at the time of impact can worsen whiplash.
  • If your driver seat’s headrest is not at the appropriate height, you may endure a more intense injury.

Preventing Whiplash
There are steps to minimize the risk of whiplash.
Make sure your vehicle’s headrests are in the right position. The center back of your head should touch the center of the headrest or higher. When engaging in sports, you should always use appropriate and proper fitting equipment.


Remember all the information provided is not intended to replace medical advice offered by your professional health care provider.   Please reach out to us for more information.  


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