Whiplash is a term used to describe an injury to the neck area that usually involves a rapid movement into extension and flexion, such as in a car accident. Whiplash is the most common non-fatal injury associated with a motor vehicle accident and can even occur at speeds of less than 15 miles per hour. Symptoms of neck stiffness and pain usually appear in the days following the accident and can last for several months, often becoming chronic in 25% of individuals.
I recently took a very interesting continuing education course about why whiplash can cause such chronic painful conditions and how it can be treated. The researchers did studies on individuals who had chronic neck pain from both whiplash disorder and chronic neck pain from other conditions such as degeneration. They found that both groups of individuals had a very different presentation.
In the group of patients that were involved in a car accident, neck muscle degeneration was found. The muscle fibers were replaced by fat content, which started to occur in as little as a few weeks after the accident. This muscle degeneration was not found in the group of chronic neck pain patients due to causes other than whiplash. This suggests that the muscle degeneration is unique to those who had whiplash disorder.
How can we use this information to treat this chronic pain? This study looked at if this muscle degeneration can be reversed. In fact, after a 10 week neck muscle strengthening program, supervised by a physical therapist, the fat deposits in the muscle can be reduced and the size of the muscle fibers were increased. This change in the muscle fibers was also correlated to a reduction in the painful symptoms.
Physical therapy is a main treatment option for individuals who have whiplash disorder. A physical therapist will perform a thorough assessment of your cervical spine movement to see where your limitations are. Based on their findings, a specific exercise program will be implemented along with other treatments such as massage, manual stretches and range of motion exercises. To truly reap the benefits of physical therapy, the patient must be dedicated to attending therapy and performing a home exercise program. With the patient and therapist working together, the symptoms of chronic whiplash can be lessened or hopefully eliminated all together.