When you think of getting whiplash, the first image that likely comes to your mind is someone’s neck being slammed back and forth quickly in a vehicle accident. Statistics show that over 1 million people suffer from whiplash annually, and most of those cases are from automobile accidents. (1) Some of the other ways that this can happen include work injuries, sports injuries or any other occasions where the neck “snaps” around violently.
What most people don’t think of is the lasting effects associated with whiplash. (2) For a lot of individuals, the injury will heal and the patient will fully recover in about three months. For others though, there is the potential for it to turn into a chronic problem that will be felt for the rest of their lives.
The neck is also the cervical spine, which makes it part of the spinal cord. So, the question is, if someone suffers from a whiplash injury, can he or she also be dealing with a spinal cord injury as a result?
In short, the answer is yes. Find out more details about the relationship between whiplash and spinal cord injuries along with various treatment options.
What Is Whiplash?
By definition, whiplash is a transfer of energy to the neck in an acceleration-deceleration manner. Studies show that about 1 percent of the population in the world will experience chronic problems due to whiplash. Thinking of whiplash that occurs during an accident, in most cases, the symptoms aren’t felt right away.
When people are in minor car accidents where the vehicle sustains little or no damage, the first thought is that nothing can be wrong with the body. However, if it is a rear impact collision, the body can experience a 7 G-force in quarter of a second traveling at just 8 mph.
So, after the adrenaline has subsided and some time has passed, those in vehicle accidents may start to feel some of the effects of whiplash. That’s why many people won’t accept medical treatment at the scene, but later on in the day or the following day, they will wind up going to see their family doctor or visit a hospital for care. The symptoms associated with whiplash include:
- Neck pain
- Limited range of motion
- Lower back pain
- Arms and legs tingling
- Sleep problems
- Post-concussion syndrome
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Travel anxiety
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
While some of these symptoms will fade over time as the body heals itself, others will stick around for years. Some people will have to deal with whiplash symptoms for the rest of their lives as a permanent problem. One study showed that after 20 years, 50 percent of the patients that were being observed following being in an accident were still dealing with symptoms from whiplash. (3)
Along with these symptoms, patients that have suffered from whiplash injuries can also be susceptible to spinal cord injury either immediately or even after some time has passed. The neck is stretched at such a force that it can overextend the spinal cord causing damage, or it can lead to leaking blood vessels and nerve deficits. (4)
Primary Spinal Cord Injury Causes
Spinal cord injuries can occur for all kinds of different reasons. With car accidents taking 32,000 lives each year, it’s no surprise that it is also one of the leading causes of spinal cord injuries. (5) With most car accidents, especially with a rear-impact collision, whiplash and subsequent injury to the spinal cord is inevitable.
Some of the other reasons why a person may have a spinal cord injury include:
- Contact with another person
- Motorcycle accidents
- Bicycle accidents
- Sports injuries
- Pedestrian accidents
- Medical and surgical complications
- Falling object injury
- Diving into water
- Gunshot wounds
Diagnosing Spinal Cord Injury
Your spinal cord is the central nervous system for the body, and it works with your brain being the command center. (6) With the overextension on the neck as mentioned before, there can be whiplash nerve damage in that area of the body. The nerve damage that occurs can affect the way messages get sent and the processing of information is disrupted.
It’s important to understand that spinal cord injuries aren’t always immediately noticeable, even for the person that has suffered one. That is why when a person has a head injury, pelvic fracture, penetrating injuries in the spine region, or has fallen and suffered an injury, medical professionals are sure to fully stabilize and immobilize the spine before transportation to a hospital. Even the slightest movement can cause further problems than what is already existing.
Following an accident or injury where spinal cord damage is a possibility because of the whiplash the neck has sustained, doctors will do various CT and MRI scans of the cervical spine to determine if there has been any sort of ligament damage. Most people will feel pain from a facet joint that has been damaged. Facet joints are located directly to the right or left of the center of the back of the neck.
For some, it is tender and it is believed to be a pain in the muscle due to the overextension of that part of the neck. The only way to tell if there has been facet joint damage is through testing called medial branch block or MBB.
Research has shown that people suffering from whiplash-associated disorder (WAD) have likely also sustained some damage in part to the spinal cord as well. (7) One of the symptoms of spinal cord injury as a result of whiplash is a weakness in the legs. There are several other indicators that a spinal cord injury has happened as well.
Spinal Cord Injury Symptoms
When someone has been in a car accident or has experienced whiplash due to an injury from some other event, there are specific factors to watch out for that help in determining if there has been a subsequent spinal cord injury as a result.
The cervical spine is connected to the rest of the spinal cord, so if the cervical spine, or neck, has been injured, that can travel down the spine and cause problems in others areas of the body. The ligaments, muscles and other structures in this region have various nerve supplies, so if one of them is injured, it can cause pain in a plethora of other parts of the body. One of the most common symptoms is a lower back pain.
Other symptoms of spinal cord injury include:
- Decrease or loss of movement
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Sexual functioning changes
- Pain or stinging
- Problems breathing
- Inability to balance while walking
Following a car accident where whiplash is suspected, if any of these signs or symptoms occur, it’s important to go see a medical doctor as soon as possible for a complete medical evaluation. Bleeding and swelling can be happening around the spinal cord that isn’t visible, and it can lead to paralysis either instantly or over time. The severity of complications only gets worse without property treatment.
Treatment Options After Whiplash and Spinal Cord Injury
Of course, immediately following any sort of injury or accident that has caused whiplash, you need to visit an emergency room or medical doctor to get a proper evaluation of your health condition. These professionals can do X-rays and scans to see what exactly is going on inside of your body. Most of the time, pain relievers will be prescribed along with therapy to strengthen and heal the neck.
For those suffering from acute whiplash, soft collars are often recommended to keep the neck and spine stable and immobilized for a specified amount of time to prevent further damages. Some people benefit from spinal injections as part of their treatment program. In very few cases is surgery necessary. It is also the most-invasive and lastly offered option.
After you visit a medical doctor, you have the option to see a chiropractor for further more natural treatment options, such as dry needling. An appointment for an evaluation should be made right away, as spinal cord injuries need to be treated as soon as possible to prevent further problems and even paralysis in some cases. Following the initial examination, most chiropractors will recommend you wait about six months or so before starting rehabilitation so that the neck and spine have time to heal and stabilize.
Chiropractors all around the country have the training and education to help align the spine and vertebrae into the proper positioning following a whiplash accident, including relieving whiplash pain. Any pressure in those areas will be relieved while the blood flow increased so that healing can take place more quickly and naturally.
Besides helping to get the body back into its original positioning, the treatment provided through chiropractic care can also alleviate pain symptoms and improve every patient’s overall health and well-being with regular visits.
Dr. Brent Wells is a graduate of the University of Nevada, where he earned his Bachelor’s of Science degree before receiving his doctorate from Western States Chiropractic College. He founded Better Health Chiropractic & Physical Rehab in Alaska in 1998. He is passionate about the work he does and strives to provide his patients with compassionate care for an overall better health and well-being. Dr. Wells is a member of the American Chiropractic Association and the American Academy of Spine Physicians. He continues his education in studies related to neurology, physical rehab, biomechanics, spine conditions and brain injury trauma.