Whiplash Definition

Whiplash Definition Vernon Hills Chiropractor

First used in 1928, the term “whiplash” was used to define an injury mechanism whereby sudden | hyperextension was followed by an immediate hyperflexion of the neck, resulting in damage to the muscles, ligaments, and tendons, especially those that support the head. Today, we know that whiplash injuries frequently do not result from hyperextension or hyperflexion (extension and flexion beyond normal physiological limits), but rather an extremely rapid extension and flexion that causes injury.

Whiplash is a complicated injury that profoundly impacts people’s lives. Few health care topics generate as much controversy as | whiplash injuries. | Unlike a broken bone where a simple x-ray confirms the fracture and health care professionals handle the injury by following a standard of care, whiplash injuries involve an unpredictable disruption to the | nervous system, | muscles | joints, | and connective tissue | that is difficult to diagnose and can be even more challenging to treat. To help you understand the nature of whiplash injuries and how they should be treated, it is necessary to spend a bit of time discussing the mechanics of how whiplash injuries occur.

The Four Phases of a Whiplash Injury

A rear-end automobile collision forces your body through an extremely rapid and intense acceleration and deceleration. In fact, all four phases of a | whiplash injury | occur in less than one-half of a second! At each phase, there are different forces acting on the body that contribute to the overall injury. Such sudden and forceful movement damages the vertebrae, nerves, discs, muscles, and | ligaments of your neck and spine, | resulting in substantial injury.

Phase 1

During this first phase, your car begins to be pushed out from under you, causing your mid-back to flatten against the back of your seat. This causes an upward force on your | cervical spine, | compressing your | discs | and joints. | As your seat back begins to accelerate your torso forward, your head moves backward, creating a shearing force in your neck. A properly adjusted head restraint will limit the distance your head travels backward; however, most of the spinal damage occurs before your head reaches your head restraint. Studies have shown that head restraints only reduce the risk of injury by 11-20%.

Phase 2

During phase two, your torso has reached its peak acceleration of 1.5 to 2 times that of your vehicle, but your head has not yet begun to accelerate forward and continues to move backward. Your cervical spine develops an | abnormal S-curve, | as the back of your seat recoils forward, much like a springboard, adding to the torso’s forward acceleration. Unfortunately, this forward recoil of the seat back occurs while your head is still moving backward, resulting in a shearing force in the neck, one of the more damaging aspects of a whiplash injury. Many of the bone, joint, nerve, disc, and | TMJ | injuries that I treat occur during this phase.

Phase 3

During the third phase, your torso descends back down in your seat and your head and neck are at their peak forward acceleration. At the same time, your car is slowing down. If you released the pressure on your brake pedal during the first phase of the collision, it will likely be reapplied during this phase. Reapplication of the brake causes your car to slow down quicker, increasing the severity of the neck’s | flexion | injury. As you move forward in your seat, any slack in your seat belt and shoulder harness is taken up.

Phase 4

Probably the most damaging phase of the whiplash phenomenon, this fourth phase involves your seat belt and shoulder restraint stopping your torso while your head is free to move forward unimpeded. This results in your neck experiencing a violent forward-bending motion, straining muscles and ligaments, tearing | spinal | disc fibers, | and forcing vertebrae out of their normal position. This action also stretches and irritates your spinal cord and nerve roots, and your brain can strike the inside of your skull, causing a mild to moderate brain injury. If you are not properly restrained by your seat harness, you may suffer a concussion or a more severe brain injury from striking the steering wheel or windshield.

Injuries Resulting from Whiplash Trauma

As mentioned, whiplash injuries can manifest in a wide variety of ways, including neck pain, headaches, fatigue, upper back and shoulder pain, cognitive changes, and | low back | pain. Because numerous factors come into play in a | whiplash trauma | such as direction of impact, vehicle speed as well as sex, age, and physical condition of the driver, it is impossible to predict the symptoms each individual will suffer. Additionally, whiplash symptoms commonly have a delayed onset, often taking weeks or months to present. There are, however, a number of conditions that are very common among | whiplash sufferers.

Neck pain

Being reported by over 90% of patients, | neck pain | is the single most common complaint in whiplash trauma, often radiating across the shoulders, up into the head, and down between the shoulder blades. Whiplash injuries tend to affect all the neck tissues, including the facet joints and discs between the vertebrae as well as all the muscles, ligaments, and nerves.

Facet joint pain is the most common cause of neck pain following a car accident. Facet joint pain is usually felt on the back of the neck, just to the right or left of center, and is usually tender to the touch. Facet joint pain cannot be seen on x-rays or MRIs; it can only be diagnosed by physical palpation of the area.

Disc injury | is also a common cause of neck pain, especially chronic pain. The disc’s outer wall (called the anulus) is made up of fiber bundles that can tear during whiplash trauma. These tears can then lead to disc degeneration or | herniation, | resulting in irritation or compression of the nerves running through the area. The pain of this compression or irritation commonly radiates into the arms, shoulders, and upper back, possibly resulting in muscle weakness.

Damaged neck and upper back muscles and ligaments are the major cause of pain experienced in the first few weeks following a whiplash injury. This damage is also responsible for stiffness and restricted range of motion. As | muscles | have a chance to heal, they typically don't cause much pain, but instead contribute to abnormal movement. This abnormal movement and instability damages the ligaments.


After neck pain, | headaches | are the most prevalent complaint among sufferers of whiplash, affecting more than 80% of all people. While some headaches are actually the result of direct brain injury, most are related to injury to the muscles, | ligaments, | and | facet joints | of the cervical spine, | which refer pain to the head. Because of this, treating the supporting structures of your neck is an important treatment to alleviate headaches.

TMJ problems

Temporomandibular joint | dysfunction also known as | TMJ | is a less common but very debilitating disorder that results from whiplash. TMJ usually begins as jaw pain accompanied by clicking and popping noises during movement. If not properly evaluated and treated, TMJ problems can worsen and lead to headaches, | facial pain, | ear pain, | and difficulty eating. Our chiropractic clinic in Arlington Heights is specially trained to treat TMJ problems or, if necessary, we can refer you to a TMJ specialist.

Brain injury

Due to the forces on the brain during the four phases of whiplash trauma, mild to moderate brain injury is common following a whiplash injury. The human brain is a soft structure suspended in a watery fluid called cerebrospinal fluid. Our skull protects our brain. When the brain is forced forward then backward, the brain bounces off the inside of the skull, leading to bruising or bleeding in the brain | itself. In some cases, patients temporarily lose consciousness and can have symptoms of a mild concussion. More often there is no loss of consciousness, but patients complain of mild confusion or disorientation just after the crash. The long-term consequences of a mild brain injury | include mild confusion, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbances, irritability, forgetfulness, loss of sex drive, depression, and emotional instability. Less common effects consist of a reduction in the sense of taste, loss of olfactory sensation, and visual disturbances.


Dizziness following a | whiplash injury | usually results from injury to the facet joints of the cervical spine, although in some cases injury to the brain or brain stem may be a factor as well. Typically, this | dizziness | is temporary and improves significantly with chiropractic treatment.

Low back pain

Although most people consider whiplash to be a neck injury, the low back is often injured as well. In fact, low back pain occurs in more than half of all reported rear-impact collisions as well as in almost three-quarters of all side-impact crashes. This is most often due to the low back experiencing a tremendous compression during the first two phases of a whiplash injury, even though it does not have the degree of | flexion-extension | injury experienced by the neck.

Recovery from Whiplash

With proper care, many mild whiplash injuries heal within six to nine months. However, more than 20% of those suffering whiplash injuries continue to suffer from pain, weakness, or restricted movement two years after their accident. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these people will continue to suffer some disability or pain for many years if not the rest of their lives.

A unique condition, whiplash requires the expertise of a skilled health professional specially trained to work with these types of injuries. The most effective whiplash treatment involves a combination of | chiropractic care, | soft tissue rehabilitation, and taking proper care of yourself.

Chiropractic Care

To restore the normal movement and position of the spinal vertebrae, Chiropractic treatment includes manual manipulation of the spine. This is by far the single-most effective treatment for minimizing the long-term impact of whiplash injuries, especially when applied in concert with massage therapy, | trigger point therapy, | exercise rehabilitation, | and other soft tissue | rehabilitation modalities.

Soft Tissue Rehabilitation

Anything other than bone is referred to as soft tissue such as | muscle, | ligaments, | tendons, nervous system, | spinal discs, | and internal organs. | During a whiplash injury, the affected tissues are mostly soft tissue, muscle, ligaments, and discs. To minimize permanent tissue impairment and disability and ensure proper repair of soft tissues, it is important to use therapies that stimulate healing, including massage therapy, | electro-stimulation, | trigger point therapy, stretching, and specific strength and | range of motion | exercises.

Home Care

If what you do at home or work stresses or re-injures you on a daily basis, you will limit your recovery even if employing the most effective chiropractic care and soft tissue rehabilitation. For this reason, the actions you perform, including | therapeutic exercise, | is important between clinic visits to help speed your recovery. Some of the more common home-care therapies include applying ice packs, limiting work and daily activities, stretching and exercise, taking nutritional supplements, and getting plenty of rest.

Medical Intervention

In severe whiplash cases, it may be necessary to include medical care as part of your overall treatment plan. The most common medical treatments include the use of | anti-inflammatory medications, | muscle relaxants, | trigger point injections, | and in some cases, | epidural spinal injections. | These therapies are meant for short-term pain relief if necessary and should not be the focus of treatment because drugs cannot restore normal joint movement and stimulate healthy muscle repair. Fortunately, only some instances of herniated discs require surgery, as in the case of a disc pressing on the spinal cord or some spinal fractures. Let Dr. Raders, your | Vernon Hills Chiropractor, | help alleviate your pain. Call today!

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