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Whiplash? But it was JUST a fender bender!


There are 2 types of people in the world: those that have been in a car accident, and those that are going to be in a car accident. I know I’ve had my fair share of collisions (none of which were my fault, of course!), and on more than 1 occasion, the term whiplash has been thrown around. I remember the first time I heard it when I was rear-ended at a stop light my senior year of high school. As a teenager, it meant very little to me. I didn’t know anything about it, and I sure as heck didn’t know what I was supposed to do about it. Oh, if I only knew then what I know now!

So, what exactly IS whiplash?

Whiplash describes a neck injury that is caused by a rapid back-and-forth motion of the neck. This can happen in a lot of ways: a gnarly fall, a swift punch to the face, an overzealous sneeze: but the most common cause of whiplash is car accidents! And as a chiropractor, I see LOTS of auto accident patients, and I guarantee every single one of them had some severity of whiplash, whether or not they realized it.

We will go over exactly what happens during a whiplash injury and how to recover from it, but first…FUN FACTS!

Whiplash: A History

The term “whiplash” was used for the first time in 1928, but it wasn’t published in the literature for the first time until 1945. Although the term “whiplash” wasn’t used until the early 1900s, the injury was still recognized and being studied prior to then. Before cars were even invented, a whiplash injury was referred to as “railway spine” because it was diagnosed in people that were injured in train accidents in the nineteenth century. And then again later during World War I (1914-1918) it was seen in test pilots for the US Navy. Back then planes were launched from the decks of battle ships using the catapult method, and head restraints definitely were NOT a thing yet. The violent force of the neck during said catapulting was so great it would cause pilots to black out for a few seconds, so it makes sense there would be severe damage to the structures in the neck from that type of force.

With automobiles becoming more prevalent, automobile accidents became more common. By the 1950s whiplash injuries were correctly identified as hyperextension of the neck followed by hyperflexion…AKA head go way back, then head go way forward. Where did we see a majority of these injuries? Rear-end collisions!

What happens during a whiplash injury?

We see ligament tears, muscle tears, small microfractures, or big ol’ fractures of the bones in the neck. The most common symptoms following a whiplash injury? Neck pain and headaches, closely followed by shoulder and arm pain, numbness and tingling in the arms, changes in visual and auditory senses, and dizziness.

How bad does an accident have to be to cause whiplash?

Excellent question! Because something I hear a LOT from patients when I ask about previous car accidents is, “I’ve only been in a few fender benders.” I always immediately follow up with, “How FAST were you/they going?” Now, I get all kinds of answers here, but the main thing I’m looking for is whether they (or the other car) was going more than 8 mph. Yes…8 mph. That is the MINIMUM speed in which significant injury can occur. In fact, the lower the speed, the more damage sustained by the occupants. Think about it this way…the force of the accident has to go somewhere. It either gets absorbed by the car (or the structure you collided with), or YOU absorb those forces. The less damage done to the car; the more damage done to your body!

How do you recover from whiplash?

The best results following a whiplash injury come from early mobilization (i.e. chiropractic adjustment) of the neck, followed by neck exercises to stretch the tight/owie muscles and strengthen the weakened muscles.

So, the next time you’re in a car accident, visit your local chiropractor to get checked out! Because it’s not IF you got injured, it’s how badly!





Todman, D.H. “Whiplash Injuries: A Historical Review.” The Internet Journal of Neurology, Internet Scientific Publications, 31 Dec. 2006, ispub.com/IJN/8/2/8723.

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