It was only a minor fender bender, but why does my neck hurt?

It is estimated that 3 million whiplash injuries occur every year in the US. Approximately 45 percent of the people with chronic neck attribute their pain to a whiplash injury.

It was only a minor fender bender, but why does my neck hurt?

It is estimated that 3 million whiplash injuries occur every year in the US. Approximately 45 percent of the people with chronic neck attribute their pain to a whiplash injury.
  • “Why does my neck hurt so badly after that car accident? It only caused minor damage to my car, but I feel like I got hit by a truck.” This is a common statement I’ve heard from patients in my office over the last 10-years of practicing chiropractic medicine.

  • According to the National Safety Council (NSA), approximately 12 million car accidents occur annually involving 20 million cars. Using the insurance industry statistics, you will be in a car accident once every 17.9 years. Whiplash injuries are experienced by over one-third of all people involved in car accidents worldwide. It is estimated the annual medical costs associated with whiplash injuries is $10 billion in the United States.

  • Wikipedia describes whiplash as “a non-medical term describing a range of injuries to the neck caused by or related to a sudden distortion of the neck associated with extension.” It is a non-specific term with a wide variety of symptoms that a person may exhibit following a car accident. These symptoms may include:

    • Neck Pain

    • Headaches

    • Arm Pain

    • Numbness/Tingling

    • Fatigue

    • Difficulty Sleeping

    • Dizziness

    • Ringing in the Ears

    • Disturbed sense of Smell

    • Memory Difficulties

    • Blurred Vision

    • Back Pain

  • One of the biggest misconceptions is that car damage correlates with injury and/or injury severity. It would make sense that a car accident with little damage to the car should only result in minor injury, right? However, this couldn't be further from the truth.

  • When it comes to car accidents, there is overwhelming evidence that shows there is no correlation between injury severity and car damage. Most cars can withstand a collision of 12-MPH showing little to no property damage. However, the Spine Research Institute of San Diego estimates 60 percent of injuries from car accident occur at speeds between 6-12 MPH. When property damage is minimal, it means the car did not absorb the energy from the accident; instead, the energy is transferred to the occupants, resulting in injury. According to research from Peugeot S.A./Renaust Laboratory of Accidentology and Biomechanics, the risk for whiplash injury is actually greater when below 9.3 MPH compared to speeds above it.

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  • Another issue with these types of accidents is pain will not always develop right away. In the majority of cases I’ve seen, the pain will develop within the first three-five days. However, it is not uncommon for pain to develop a few weeks after an accident. This delay onset of symptoms is referred to as Late Whiplash Syndrome. According to the journal Pain Practice (2008), it is estimated that 6.2 percent of all Americans currently suffer from Late Whiplash Syndrome. That is why it is always important to see a specialist following these types of accidents.

  • If you are injured in a car accident, then keep an open mind regarding your treatment options. An individual has a wide variety of options regarding treatment, but manual therapy (chiropractic, physical therapy, massage therapy, etc.) tends to have higher successful outcomes. A recent randomized nine-week trial comparison of medicine (Celebrex, Vioxx, or Paracetamol), acupuncture and chiropractic care showed chiropractic manipulation to be the superior treatment regarding chronic spinal pain. Remember, what worked for your co-worker of friend may not work for you. If you are receiving care and not improving, then you may want to try a different specialty.

  • Since there is no clear consensus for treatment options about the best approach to treat these injuries, you may get a variety of opinions depending on the specialist. Regardless of the specialist you see, you will first undergo an in-depth history and examination to determine the exact source of the pain. Remember, whiplash is a very generic term for soft tissue damage in the neck. It is important to determine which soft tissues structures that are causing the pain.

  • Secondly, you want to a specific treatment plan developed for you with goals to strive for regarding therapy. It is my personal opinion that a successful treatment plan involves a multidisciplinary approach that includes manual therapy, rehabilitation and massage therapy. Since healing time will vary from person to person, I do not like to put a time limit on treatment. However, treatment goals should be obtained, and pain should always be decreasing or the treatment plan needs to be modified.

  • At the end of the day, the best way to avoid being injured in a car accident is just not being in one. Pay attention to your surroundings. Focus on your driving (stay off the phone — talking on the phone increases your chance of accident by 400 percent) and obey the traffic laws. If you are in an accident and experience whiplash, seek the treatment option that's right for your injury.

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Dr. Ken Andersen is a Chiropractic Physician at Andersen Chiropractic, LLC in Sandy, UT that specializes in the spinal rehabilitation and treatment of the spine. He is also an adjunct member of Salt Lake Community College Biology Department.

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