All About Whiplash

Question: What is  whiplash all about and do I really need to do anything to heal? 

Answer: Whiplash is a common concern at the chiropractor and at other practitioner’s offices. Most people associate whiplash with automobile rear-end accidents. But, this condition can occur in sports and other injuries, too. Whiplash is an injury to the neck and upper-back’s ligaments and tendons. It also involves the discs, nerves and blood vessels. 

In today’s world, particularly with the use of computers, repetitive-use activities and various postures are contributing factors. Even injuries from years ago, if not fully resolved, can have lasting impacts years after. In 2011, a Harvard study found that 74 percent of whiplash injuries had inflammation in the upper neck, which is associated with traumatic brain injuries. Thus, it is very concerning and can be severe and incapacitating. 

With whiplash injuries it’s important to consider the best approach, especially if this involves an auto accident with insurance and legal ramifications. A thorough and concervative functional medicine approach is the best way to start. This is often performed by chiropractors or other medical practitioners who offer more detailed, personalized and conservative approaches. 

One approach starts with a very careful and comprehensive history and exam, documentation of the effects of the injury on the person’s life, work and health, as well as performing various objective and measurable tests. 

Often, this evaluation will include X-rays, especially a digital motion X-ray, which can precisely capture the spine in motion. This will help detect injury to the spinal cord possibly resulting in neurologic damage. But even then, many injuries to things like the facet joints and ligaments won’t show up on standard X-rays and MRIs. Thus, a careful evaluation by a specialist is important. 

Remember, not all symptoms are immediate. In fact, research from University of Pennsylvania has shown that up to 62 percent of people affected by whiplash injuries report pain lasting two years or more after injury affecting activities of daily living. 

Common symptoms include: neck pain, stiffness, headaches, cognitive difficulties, visual disturbances, dizziness, fatigue, irritability, nausea, changes in appetite or bowel movements. Often pain relieving medications, including opioids may be prescribed, but this should carefully be considered in view of their habit forming potential. This is why a conservative functional medicine view should be considered first. 

Recently I worked with a patient who was in a car accident struck from behind at just 10 to 15 miles per hour. Initially there was a rush of exhilaration and she was immediately concerned about the other driver. After exchanging information, since the cars were drivable, no police arrived and they both went their separate ways. She indicated that night she was tired, had some neck pain and a headache. 

The following day when she came to my office, she had bruising across her chest, severe low back pain, loss of appetite, lights bothered her requiring sunglasses and was having trouble collecting clear thoughts. 

After a thorough and detailed intake we created a personalized and detailed plan necessary for lasting improvement. We started by performing some conservative care including heat, light mobilization and laser therapy. 

As the days progressed with regular and consistent care she has been able to return to activities of daily living with 60 percent improvement. We included various exercises, dietary modifications, sleep hygiene, chiropractic care and other therapies. She is now on the road to recovery.

Dr. Tim Heath DC, MBA, CCEP is a board-certified primary care doctor who runs Optimized Wellness Center, a multidisciplinary functional medicine practice in Alameda. No information here is intended to be medical advice or should be relied upon to determine diet, make a medical diagnosis or necessary treatment for a medical condition.