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What Happens When You Get Whiplash?

We’ve all heard of whiplash, with the condition featuring regularly in both TV and film. In many of these storylines, the characters are usually involved in some sort of minor fender-bender, and immediately embark on a comedic display of pain in the hopes of securing a big insurance payout. But for many people, this is where their knowledge of whiplash ends. In order to better understand this common condition, we are going to look at exactly what happens when you get whiplash.


As the name implies, whiplash occurs when the head is unexpectedly thrust forward at great speed, and then stopped suddenly. The mechanics of this movement is not unlike the cracking of a whip, which is where the condition gets its name. But in comparison to other parts of our bodies, our necks rarely, if ever, move at this level of speed, or so suddenly, and are not well-prepared to deal with a movement like this.

The actual cause of pain associated with whiplash is a strained neck. Not to be confused with neck sprains, which is when the ligaments connecting bones are torn, neck strains occur when the muscles in the neck, or the tendons connecting those muscles to the bones, are damaged. These can be overstretched, which causes tiny tears of the microfibres that comprise the muscles, damaging its overall integrity and health, and leading to pain. In more extreme cases, the muscles or tendons can be torn entirely.

If you think of your muscles like an elastic band, stretching them too far may not cause it to break, but you can certainly see and feel that it has been damaged. This is essentially what happens when a person suffers from whiplash. Unfortunately, and the reason we hear about false whiplash claims so often, there are very few ways for a doctor to identify whiplash other than from the symptoms the patient reports. These symptoms include pain, tenderness, stiffness, decreased range of motion, and headaches. While doctors may be able to identify whiplash using dynamic x-rays, where images are taken on the patient holding their head in various positions, these do not always work and are not commonly used.

In terms of treatment, whiplash recovery time varies greatly from person to person, with severity ranging from mild discomfort, to temporary paralysis or nerve damage. A doctor may recommend that a person suffering from whiplash wear a neck brace, and take anti-inflammatory painkillers to reduce discomfort and swelling. Icing the injury for 15 minutes every 4 hours in the days following the incident is also recommended, at which point the patient should switch to a heating application, such as a hot, wet towel.

Whiplash is rarely a life-altering condition, so anyone who has suffered it need not be too apprehensive. That being said, the neck is extremely important in maintaining our quality of life, not only because it passes signals from our brains to the rest of our bodies, but also because chronic neck pain can be extremely disruptive to our day-to-day lives. If you think you may have sustained a whiplash injury, be sure to visit the doctor as soon as possible, and follow their instructions to give yourself the best chance to recover quickly. 

 

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