Whiplash occurs in less than a second, but a recent study suggests the effects can last a lifetime.
The right treatment can get your spine — and your life — back on track, but it’s important to act early.
“The study was published in the medical journal Spine by Dr. Manohar M. Panjabi,” says Federal Way’s Dr. Stephen Ball of Ball Chiropractic Center. “It suggests the effects of whiplash may be much more long lasting than previously thought.”
Right after whiplash you’re likely to feel acute pain which may or may not subside on its own. But if your spine is abnormally aligned and you don’t visit a chiropractor for treatment, the pain could return months later.
“Patients are often prescribed muscle relaxants and anti-inflammatory medications after whiplash, but too often they haven’t received even a cursory palpatory exam,” Dr. Ball says. “They’re assured the injury will last six to 12 weeks, and if complaints persist they’re referred to physical therapy. When that doesn’t work patients frequently resort to long term use of pain medication.”
Joint, discs and soft tissues are likely the cause of acute pain immediately following whiplash, but the study suggests that these injuries lead may to chronic neck pain, facet osteoarthritis and disc degeneration as well.
“Approximately 50% of whiplash patients reported chronic neck pain 15 years after the trauma,” the study by Dr. Manohar M. Panjabi says.
Small tears in the annulus (the tough circular exterior of the intervertebral disc) combined with the abnormal load associated with the loss of structure, triggers a chain reaction that can lead to degeneration and chronic pain.
- Whiplash causes the neck muscles spasm.
- Muscle spasms cause an abnormal spine curvature.
- The abnormal curvature causes increased loads on the cervical disc.
- The soft tissue will heal from the initial whiplash (and you might find pain relief), but if the spine is still in the abnormal position the pain will return six months to a year later.
- The abnormal curvature accelerates degeneration, resulting in arthritis and chronic pain, and the longer it goes untreated the harder it is to correct.
“The key is early intervention. A visit to a chiropractor immediately after the injury — before the muscles start to repair and scar tissue forms — can make all the difference. If intersegmental function can be restored early, patients will retain more range of motion which prevents early degeneration,” Dr. Ball says.