From the Law Offices of Robert Rodriguez
Whiplash injury is by far the most common injury from a car wreck. Like the crack of a whip, a person’s neck can be whipped back and forth in almost any type of car wreck, but especially in a rear-end collision. Whiplash can be extremely painful and can severely limit your ability to move your head up and down and side to side.
In this article you will learn:
- the mechanics of a whiplash injury
- how a whiplash injury is diagnosed
- how long a whiplash injury typically lasts
- treatments for a whiplash injury
- how to know when a whiplash injury might be more serious
The mechanics of a whiplash injury:
When a vehicle is rear-ended, its occupant’s head will first be propelled backward and then quickly forward. This is because our heads are relatively heavy and the muscles and ligaments that hold the head are relatively weak. When a vehicle is suddenly propelled forward by a rear impact, the occupant’s head will not stay in line with his body, but instead lags behind a fraction of a second. Because the back is supported by the back of the car seat and the head is not, the body is propelled forward faster than the head. The head then hits the seat’s headrest and quickly snaps forward and overruns the body. In this way, the connective tissue of the neck, its ligaments, muscle, and surrounding tissue, are stretched beyond their limits, causing microscopic tears. This causes swelling and pain, which in turn cause stiffness and sometimes, spasms. This doesn’t happen right away. Sometimes, my clients report that they felt fine immediately after the wreck. A day or so later, however, they experienced pain and stiffness. A whiplash victim will experience severe pain in turning his neck from side to side or moving his head up and down. These are very common symptoms of whiplash.
How is a whiplash injury diagnosed:
There are no diagnostic tests to confirm a whiplash injury. Emergency room doctors will almost certainly order x-rays to rule out broken bones, but soft tissue (muscles, ligaments, connective tissue) cannot be seen on x-rays. An MRI or CT scan can “see” soft tissue, but these tests come later and are used to confirm disc herniations or tears in the muscles or ligaments. Instead, doctors rely on the history of the injury, the patient’s complaints, and physical examination to diagnose whiplash. The examination usually involves palpation to see if pain is elicited and range of motion tests. The fact that whiplash injuries cannot be objectively diagnosed makes them hard to prove to an adjuster and a jury. The same problem applies to all soft tissue injuries, whether they involve the back or neck.
When will my whiplash injury feel better:
This all depends on the severity of the injury and whether or not you receive medical intervention. In minor cases, a person can be free from pain and limitations of motion within several days even without any medical treatment. Typically, though, it has been my experience that whiplash symptoms can last up to several months.
Typical treatments for whiplash:
Whiplash is generally treated with a combination of pain relievers, anti-inflammatories, and muscle relaxers, as well as physical therapy or chiropractic manipulation. The pain, swelling, and limitation of motion typical of a whiplash can become an endless cycle where more swelling leads to more pain and more pain leads to more stiffness, and more stiffness leads back to more swelling. Doctors try to break this cycle by ordering pain medications ranging from over-the-counter Motrin or Tylenol to a variety of pain medications available through prescription. To reduce the swelling, doctors will typically order non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) such as over-the-counter Aleve (Naproxen), or Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or prescription NSAIDS such as Meloxicam (Mobic) and Ketorolac (Toradol). To address the pain and to reduce spasming, doctors often prescribe a muscle relaxer, such as Cyclobenzaprine, commonly referred to by its brand name, Flexeril. In conjunction with the medications, doctors will order physical therapy or chiropractic care, which consists of ice packs, heat packs, massage, electrical stimulation, and specific exercises. It is very important to begin treatment as soon as possible and to follow the treatment regimen dutifully in order to insure a quicker and better outcome. A long delay between the injury and treatment or missed therapy sessions and missed medications can result in a longer recovery time and additional pain and discomfort. A typical whiplash patient can expect anywhere from 4 to 8 weeks of treatment three times per week, tapering down to twice a week.
Is it just whiplash or something more serious:
Sometimes, a whiplash injury is more serious and is not just a whiplash. Signs that your whiplash injury needs further medical follow-up include numbness of the arms, hands, or fingers, a tingling sensation or “pins and needles” sensation of the arms, hands, or fingers, weakness of the arms or hands, or pain in the shoulder, arm or hand. These symptoms suggest that a nerve root in the cervical spine is being compressed. Sometimes, the compression of the nerve root is caused by soft tissue swelling and will go away when the inflamed tissue returns to normal. Sometimes, though, the nerve compression is caused by a herniated disc or discs. When symptoms are still present weeks or months after your car wreck, it is probably a good idea to consult with a neurologist to see if a diagnostic test such as an MRI, CT scan, or a nerve conduction study is warranted.
If you have been in a car wreck and have symptoms of a whiplash, call my office for a free consultation. I have handled thousands of cases just like yours and can answer all of your questions.