Whiplash – Can We Predict Long-Term Problems?

Whiplash (or the rapid acceleration forwards followed by deceleration or sudden stopping of the moving head during the whiplash event) occurs at a speed that is so fast, we can’t prepare for it. In other words, by the time it takes us to voluntarily contract a muscle to guard ourselves against injury, that rapid forward/backwards “whipping” of the head and neck is already over! When considering the details of the injury event, sometimes we lose focus on what REALLY matters. Is there a way to reduce the chances for a long-term chronic, disabling, neck pain / headache result? Last month, we found out that the long-term use of a cervical collar is NOT a good idea. What are some other ways to prevent long-term disability?

A very interesting study investigated the first 14 days of treatment during the acute stage of whiplash neck sprain injuries following a car accident. The researchers wanted to determine what long-term consequences resulted from two different treatment approaches. In one group (201 patients, 47% of the total group), the patients were encouraged to, “…act as usual,” and continue in their normal daily, pre-injury activities. The patients in the second group were given time off from work and were immobilized in a soft cervical collar during the first 14 days after the car crash. At the end of the 14 days, there was a significant reduction of symptoms between the first visit to the fifteenth day (24 hours after the 14 day initial treatment time frame in both groups). However, when evaluated at the six-month point, the group that continued their normal daily routine, did not take time off work, and did not wear a collar had, “…a significantly better outcome,” compared to the other group. This study supports that over-treatment with a collar and time off from work “sets people up” for adopting a “sick role” where the patient is overly-focused on their problem. This study parallels what we discussed last month and embraces the chiropractic philosophy to staying active, exercise, don’t use a collar, and the use of manipulation which exercises joints and keeps them from stiffening up, thus reducing pain and the fear of doing activity!

Another study looked at different presenting physical factors that might be involved in the development of long-term handicaps after an acute whiplash injury in a group of 688 patients. They measured these physical factors at three, six, and twelve month intervals and found the relative risk for a disability a year after injury increased with the following: 1) A 3.5 times disability increase with initial high pain intensity of neck pain and headaches; 2) A 4.6 times increase with initial reduced neck movement or ranges of motion; and 3) A 4 times greater chance with initial multiple non-painful complaints (such as balance disturbance, dizziness, concentration loss, etc.). In yet another study, both physical and psychological factors were found to predict long-term disability. These included initial high levels of reported pain and poor activity tolerance, older age, cold sensitivity, altered circulation, and moderate post-traumatic stress.

The “bottom line” is that as chiropractors, we are in the BEST position to treat and manage whiplash injured patients based on the type of care we perform and offer. We promote exercise of muscles and joints, encourage activity not rest, and minimize dependence on medication, collars, and other negative treatment approaches.