Why Post-Accident Whiplash Symptoms Are Often Delayed

Why Post-Accident Whiplash Symptoms Are Often Delayed

Whiplash is an injury to the neck caused by a sudden backward-and-forward jerking motion of the head. In adults, it’s most commonly the result of a car accident; in the case of babies, it’s most often shaken baby syndrome. Whiplash produces a collection of symptoms that stem from the spine and the soft tissues and nerves that surround it.

At Today's Chiropractic Clinic in Des Moines, Washington, chiropractor Dr. Charles Laycock treats all manner of neck pain, including the pain and stiffness caused by a whiplash injury. As many of their patients are surprised at the delayed onset of symptoms, they’ve put together this guide to help you understand the condition.

Post-accident whiplash symptoms and delayed onset

When your head is snapped back-and-forth in a whiplash injury, the cervical (neck) structures extend and flex, creating severe shearing forces that can cause damage to the spinal joints and intervertebral discs, as well as overstretch the muscles and ligaments of the neck and upper back, changing the spine’s normal curve. The neck is particularly vulnerable to this kind of injury because it’s able to move in many directions.

In addition, as structures move, extruding material or misaligned vertebrae can compress and injure spinal nerve roots, causing pain that travels along the nerve’s path.

Symptoms may appear immediately, or they may show up days or even weeks after the injury occurs. That’s because it takes time for the body to divert blood, fluid, and nutrients to the injury site, as well as to register that swelling has occurred. Symptoms include:

In addition, researchers have identified "late whiplash" syndrome, a collection of symptoms and disabilities seen more than six months after sustaining a whiplash injury. A 1980 study examined a series of 300 cases and found a strong correlation between headache, neckache, neck stiffness, depression, and anxiety, mostly in women between 21- 40. However, the researchers were unable to correlate the symptoms with physical or radiological abnormalities, leading them to conclude that social variables may be a relevant factor in causing the syndrome.

Diagnosing whiplash

Dr. Laycock starts by asking you about the injury, where it hurts, what the pain feels like, and what other symptoms you’re experiencing. He also performs a physical exam to look for sore spots and range of motion issues in your neck and arms.

In most cases, whiplash injuries affect only the soft tissues, such as the spinal discs, muscles, and ligaments, which can’t be seen on standard X-rays. Dr. Laycock may take an X-ray anyway, just to rule out any other type of injury like a fracture or a degenerative disease like arthritis.

To assess inflammation in or damage to the soft tissues, spinal cord, or nerves, the doctor may request CT or MRI scans, which better show these structures.

Treating whiplash

Most treatments for whiplash are simple and conservative. Over-the-counter pain medications and anti-inflammatories are good for starters, but if you’re in extreme pain or are having muscle spasms, talk with your primary care physician about a prescription for a muscle relaxant and/or painkiller to allow you to undergo more hands-on therapies.

Foam collars used to be the norm in whiplash treatment, but medical opinion has changed over the years. The consensus is that you shouldn’t wear collars for more than three hours at a time, and only use them for the first couple of days. Otherwise, your muscles can atrophy from not having to work to hold your head up.

Physical therapy plays a critical role in getting better. You’ll start small, using heat or ice packs to relax the soft tissues of your neck and upper back, and performing simple exercises to increase range of motion; then we introduce additional exercises to build strength and flexibility.

If it’s too painful to do PT, a short course of spinal manipulation, chiropractic adjustment, manual therapy, or mobilization can help restore normal positioning of the muscles and joints, allowing you to participate in an active therapy program.

If you’ve sustained a whiplash injury, whether your symptoms are immediately present or are delayed, you need to come into Today's Chiropractic Clinic as soon as possible for an evaluation and treatment. Give the office a call at 206-222-8967, or book your appointment online today. The sooner you get help, the sooner your symptoms will resolve.

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