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Understanding Whiplash and Its Implications

You've heard the word whiplash. You've heard it said in an authoritative, clinical way. You've heard it listed as one of the injuries in a fictional television court case. You've probably even heard it joked about near roller coasters at theme parks. But most people only have the most basic understanding of this common and potentially serious injury.

Below we cover the basics of whiplash so you can better understand your injuries or the injuries of a loved one. This knowledge can help you seek proper medical care and pursue settlements that ensure your continued treatment.

What Is Whiplash?

The term whiplash encompasses almost all neck injuries sustained when the head moves backward, forward, or sideways suddenly. Most sufferers don't break any bones or vertebrae. However, that doesn't mean whiplash isn't painful and potentially serious.

Whiplash injuries primarily involve soft tissue damage, but may include complications such as:

  • Disc Herniation: Occurs when the discs between vertebrae develop small tears. The inner core of the disc may extrude through these tears, bringing it into contact with spinal nerves and nerve roots.

  • Joint Dysfunction: Results from loss of resiliency in one or more joints in the spine. Over time this may restrict range of motion.

  • Ligament Damage: Ligaments keep the vertebrae aligned. Excessive bone movement resulting from ligament failure causes pain and, in some cases, permanent mobility issues.

  • Muscle Tears: Victims who anticipated the impact automatically tense, bracing themselves. Unfortunately, this tension makes the neck muscles vulnerable to tears. Even small tears can result in discomfort and difficulty maintaining head, neck, and upper back position.

How Does Whiplash Manifest?

Sometimes, even in moderate accidents, victims don't feel any whiplash symptoms immediately. This is because the fundamental cause of whiplash-related issues is a misalignment in the neck, which could take one or more days to create discomfort and other symptoms. Just because you felt okay at the scene of your accident, doesn't mean you don't have whiplash.

When determining whether or not you have whiplash, watch for the following symptoms:

  • Blurred vision

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Dizziness, vertigo, or ringing in the ears

  • Fatigue, irritability, or nausea

  • Headache or migraine

  • Jaw and facial pain

  • Neck pain or stiffness

  • Numbness or tingling sensations

  • Shoulder, back, or limb pain

What Does Whiplash Treatment Include?

Your health care provider may use imaging to determine the extent of your injuries. This may include x-rays to spot any bone fractures, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to detect disc problems or nerve compression, or computed tomography (CT scan) to look for blockage in the spinal canal.

Once your health care provider has an idea of the injury severity, he or she may suggest one or more of the following treatment solutions:

  • Body Mechanics: This program involves training on proper posture and can limit chronic pain. Body mechanics may involve low-impact exercise and ergonomic support usage.

  • Medication: Medication cannot resolve whiplash, but it can decrease inflammation, pain, and muscle tension. Typically health care providers prescribe medication to combat acute pain or increase the effectiveness of other treatments.

  • Spinal Manipulation: Spinal manipulation involves manual realignment of the vertebrae in the back and neck. Only licensed chiropractors, osteopaths, or physical therapists should provide spinal manipulation therapy.

  • Strength Training: Basic stretches and neck exercises enhance the body's ability to maintain healthy posture and adequate range of motion. In the case of whiplash recovery, a physical therapist typically oversees this training.

If your symptoms do not respond as expected to these treatments, your health care provider may recommend spinal injections or surgery. Epidural injections usually only provide short-term relief from intense pain. Surgery, on the other hand, is recommended only to rectify problems caused by one or two damaged discs pressing on the spinal cord or a connected nerve.

Most patients continue care from 30 to 90 days. In extreme cases, health care providers may develop a long-term care plan.

What Does a Whiplash Injury Mean for You?

You should make an appointment for medical evaluation as soon as you notice persistent or acute symptoms of whiplash. Then, reach out to a trusted personal injury attorney. In many cases, the insurer of the at-fault party must cover a certain portion of your medical costs. However, attempting to negotiate a settlement on your own behalf can be draining, overwhelming, and fruitless.

This is particularly true in any of the following circumstances:

  • You have a diagnosed back, neck, bone, or joint condition that predates the accident.

  • You put off receiving medical attention or continued working immediately following the accident.

  • You reported being uninjured at the scene of the accident and during any subsequent communication.

Don't wait until the stiffness in your neck develops into chronic pain and headaches. Seek medical treatment right away. And, if you sustained your whiplash in a car accident, talk to a personal injury attorney. Most attorneys offer free consultations so you can find out if you have a claim without any further costs.

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