A study published in 2019 found that nearly half of whiplash associated disorders (WAD) sufferers are still symptomatic one year after their injury. Why is that, and what can one do to reduce their risk for chronic WAD symptoms?
The most common source of pain from WAD injuries arises from joint capsules and ligaments, which are tough, tight bands of tissue that hold joints together and help stabilize the cervical spine. When these soft tissues are damaged, the body will take measures to restrict movement so that the injury doesn’t become more severe. This is one reason why cervical range of motion is reduced when the neck is injured.
You may recall that a patient with whiplash used to be fitted with a cervical collar to protect the neck and limit movement. However, researchers have since discovered that, in many cases, restricting all cervical movement for a prolonged period of time can lead to a weakening of the deep neck muscles—which are important for maintaining cervical posture—and the buildup of potentially troublesome scar tissue. These days, patients are encouraged to remain active provided their movements do not generate acute pain. Not only does staying active reduce the risk of deep neck muscle atrophy, but movement is necessary to produce the compressive forces that help maintain the flow of nutrients to the cartilaginous tissues in the neck.
The back-and-forth whiplash process can also result in trauma to the brain, also known as a concussion. The brain is suspended in the skull by ligaments and is cushioned by fluid. In a rear-end collision, the oblique angle of the chest restraint results in a twisting of the torso upon impact as the body accelerates forward. The brain slams into the front inside of the skull and then rebounds and hits the back inside of the skull as the trunk is forced backward during the deceleration phase of the injury. Depending on the degree of force, concussion can involve the front, back, or both parts of the brain resulting in memory problems, confusion, fatigue/drowsiness, dizziness, vision problems, headache, nausea/vomiting, light/noise sensitivity, and more. The good news is that chiropractic care applied to the cervical spine has been demonstrated to benefit patients with these post-concussive symptoms that often accompany WAD, which may reduce the chances that such symptoms become chronic in nature.
The current research suggests that patients who seek treatment soon after a whiplash event— like a car accident, slip and fall, or sports collision—are not only more likely to experience a faster recovery but they are also less likely to develop a chronic condition. Chiropractic care offers a safe and conservative form of treatment for WAD that is often recommend by treatment guidelines.