Whiplash is a painful injury to the neck and upper back. It is caused by a sudden, forceful, uncontrolled movement of the head and neck in a backward and then forward motion. This rapid movement can cause damage to the muscles, ligaments, intervertebral discs, spine, and nerves of the neck and upper back.
What Causes Whiplash?
The most common cause of whiplash is an automobile accident. Other causes of whiplash are physical abuse, sports related injuries, falls, and even amusement park rides. Anything that violently moves the head in a back and forth motion can cause a whiplash injury.
What Are The Symptoms of Whiplash?
There are many signs and symptoms that can accompany a whiplash injury. These symptoms can occur minutes, hours, or even days following the injury. It is not uncommon to feel "ok" immediately following the traumatic event, only to begin experiencing symptoms at a later time. The following is a list of symptoms that can occur with a whiplash injury:
Neck pain and stiffness
Upper back and shoulder pain
Pain between the shoulder blades
Headache (especially in the back of the head)
Loss of movement in the neck
Painful movement of the neck and upper back
Numbness and/or tingling in the upper back, arms, and/or hands
Fatigue and irritability
Problems with concentrating and memory
Ringing in the ears
Whiplash Diagnosis and Imaging
Whiplash is diagnosed following a thorough consultation and examination with your doctor. It is based on the type of injury, your symptoms, and possible imaging tests. Tests such as x-rays, CT scans, and MRI can be used to determine the extent of damage that has occurred.
X-rays for Whiplash
X-rays are used to determine if there are any fractures, dislocations, misalignment, or other damage to the bones. Often underutilized, flexion-extension x-rays can be used to determine if there has been any damage to the ligaments that hold the spine together.
CT scan for Whiplash
Computerized Tomography uses x-rays to produce a 3 dimensional image of your spine and soft tissues. It is primarily used to evaluate for any damage to the spinal bones (called vertebrae).
MRI for Whiplash
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is used to determine if there is any damage to the soft tissues of the neck and upper back. It is like taking a picture of the inside of your body. Your doctor will use an MRI to evaluate the spine and spinal cord, nerves, muscles and ligaments, and to determine if you have a bulging or herniated disc.
Treatment for Whiplash
Treatment for whiplash should focus on relieving pain and inflammation, and restoring normal function of the neck and upper back. This includes restoring normal alignment and motion of the spine, normal strength and tone to the muscles of the neck and upper back, and stability when performing activities. Ideally, the treatment goal should be to return the individual to pre-injury status.
Medical management of whiplash usually consists of educating the patient on at-home care and prescribing medications to relieve pain, muscle spasm, and inflammation. With more severe cases, spinal injections or surgery may be necessary.
Chiropractic Care for Whiplash
Chiropractic care plays a key role in the treatment of whiplash injury. Chiropractors are the only doctors that focus on restoring normal motion, alignment, and function of the spine. Addressing these needs are essential for full and complete recovery from this painful condition.
Chiropractors use a variety of treatments to relieve pain and help their patients recover from whiplash. Based on the patient's condition, the doctor will determine the treatments necessary to give he or she the best chance for success. Below are some of the more common treatments a chiropractor may use.
Myofacial release or deep tissue massage
Electric Muscle Stimulation (EMS) and Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)
Considerations for Care and Complications
When determining the right treatment approach it is important to consider both the short term and long term benefits of care. The initial, short term, goals should focus on getting you feeling better. The long term goals should focus on making sure your neck and back are functioning at their best.
With a treatment approach that both relieves pain and restores normal function, most people will heal without complications or long term disability.
Left untreated, or with a treatment plan that does not address proper function of the neck and back, chances for prolonged pain, long term issues, or future spinal conditions, is much higher.
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