What is Whiplash?
If you’ve ever been in a car accident then you’ve probably experienced whiplash.
Put simply, whiplash is when you are moving and suddenly halted, thus causing your body to snap forward. Think of a car moving on the highway and suddenly slamming on the brakes or hitting a wall. The continued forward motion and inertia from the car may cause your body to snap or jerk forward while the car itself is stopping.
Whiplash injuries can cause serious injuries to the neck, spine, and shoulders.
In order to help you understand the nature of whiplash injuries and how they should be treated, it is necessary to spend a bit of time discussing the mechanics of how whiplash injuries occur.
The Four Phases of a Whiplash Injury
During a rear-end automobile collision, your body goes through extremely rapid and intense acceleration and deceleration. In fact, all four phases of a whiplash injury occur in less than one-half of a second!
At each phase, there is a different force acting on the body that contributes to the overall injury, and with such a sudden and forceful movement, damage to the vertebrae, nerves, discs, muscles, and ligaments of your neck and spine can be substantial.
During this first phase, your car begins to be pushed out from under you, causing your mid-back to be flattened against the back of your seat. This results in an upward force in your cervical spine, compressing your discs and joints. As your seat back begins to accelerate your torso forward, your head moves backward, creating a shearing force in your neck.
If your head restraint is properly adjusted, the distance your head travels backward is limited. However, most of the damage to the spine will occur before your head reaches your head restraint. Studies have shown that head restraints only reduce the risk of injury by 11-20%.
During phase two, your torso has reached peak acceleration – 1.5 to 2 times that of your vehicle itself – but your head has not yet begun to accelerate forward and continues to move rearward. An abnormal S-curve develops in your cervical spine as your seat back recoils forward, much like a springboard, adding to the forward acceleration of the torso.
For analogy purposes, think of spring being pulled back and then let go. This is the exact motion that occurs during whiplash with the neck and head.
Unfortunately, this forward seat back recoil occurs while your head is still moving backward, resulting in a shearing force in the neck that is one of the more damaging aspects of a whiplash injury. Many of the bone, joint, nerve, disc and TMJ injuries that I see clinically occur during this phase.
During the third phase, your torso is now descending back down in your seat and your head and neck are at their peak forward acceleration. At the same time, your car is slowing down. If you released the pressure on your brake pedal during the first phases of the collision, it will likely be reapplied during this phase.
Reapplication of the brake causes your car to slow down even quicker and increases the severity of the flexion injury of your neck. As you move forward in your seat, any slack in your seat belt and shoulder harness is taken up.
This is probably the most damaging phase of the whiplash phenomenon.
In this fourth phase, your torso is stopped by your seat belt and shoulder restraint and your head is free to move forward unimpeded. This results in a violent forward-bending motion of your neck, straining the muscles and ligaments, tearing fibers in the spinal discs, and forcing vertebrae out of their normal position. Your spinal cord and nerve roots get stretched and irritated, and your brain can strike the inside of your skull causing a mild to moderate brain injury.
If you are not properly restrained by your seat harness, you may suffer a concussion, or more severe brain injury, from striking the steering wheel or windshield.
Get Help, Get Assessed
The unfortunate thing about whiplash is that it may cause more damage than it appears. Whiplash causes many kinds of internal injuries to the head, neck, shoulders, and spine. And, if these injuries are left undiscovered or untreated, they may cause major complications later. If you’ve been a victim of a traumatic car accident, don’t wait to get assessed. Call us today at 918-836-7900 for a free injury consultation!