I have examined many patients who have been involved in motor vehicle accidents and have sustained a whiplash type injury. They often come in with symptoms such as headaches, neck pain, stiff neck, facial pain, loss of range of motion in their neck and difficulty finding a comfortable position at night. The pain intensity is often mild to severe. Some patients experience the pain right away, for some it can take, even weeks to develop. Every patients’ tolerance to pain is different.
Immediately after a car accident you may feel fine. No pain response is normal right after the accident because your adrenaline is pumping and cortisol is being released into the body. You may be in slight shock and maybe even a little dazed. You may start to experience pain in a few hours, a few days or maybe in a few weeks. Studies have shown that 62% to 98% of people complain of neck pain, which usually begins 2 hours or even two days following the accident.
During a whiplash type of injury your neck can be thrown forward and backward a few times in a few seconds. This can cause injury to ligaments and muscles. Your ability to turn your head up, down, to the side, and to turn your head may be limited. Neck pain and neck stiffness can result because the neck and upper back musculature is tight and is reacting to tears in the muscle or too much movement (hyperextension or hyperflexion) in the joints from ligament damage. The muscles response is often one of tightness in order to support the head limiting too much movement.
This soft tissue injury can allow Inflammation in these regions to take a few days to accumulate, putting more pressure on nerves in the neck. One’s daily routine and even the way that they sleep- which didn’t cause pain in the past, may now trigger pain as a result of the recent trauma.
So the best thing to do after a trauma is to get your neck evaluated because pain and problems can occur later on down the road. X-rays are important to make sure there are no broken bones. Advanced imaging studies such as MRI’s or CT Scans can show soft tissue injury.
There are many treatments for whiplash type injuries. Some patients wear neck collars right after the accident, although these should only be worn temporarily in the acute phase. Often times, patients are prescribed muscle relaxers and pain medications to help with the pain. Chiropractic adjustments, hot and cold therapy, soft tissue work, muscle massage, using a good supportive pillow, and electrotherapy ( tens or ultrasound) also play a helpful role in treating this type of injury.