The Top 7 Whiplash Injury Symptoms and their Long Term Implications

Whiplash injuries always carry with them long term implications. How can I make such a blanket statement? First, there are no absolutes but the vast, vast majority of whiplash injuries cause long term chronic problems. And, why is that?

That’s the million dollar question, the answer to which is your key to minimizing the long term implications of whiplash injuries. 

I know all this from personal experience in my life. I was involved in a head on auto collision at age 18. An ambulance trip to the hospital with some 30+ stitches to the gash in my forehead and I was good to go. At least that’s what I was led to believe. 

More than a year later while in college I began to experience daily chronic incapacitating problems ranging from neck and shoulder pain, headaches, back pain, and poor sleep to fatigue. It wasn’t until I visited my first chiropractor that I came to understand the source of my issues was that car accident more than a year prior. 

Why do Whiplash Injuries Cause Long Term Problems?

One of the reasons is that these injuries are not well appreciated by the ER doctors, Urgent Care doctors, and primary care physicians. Most of them see these people once or twice, are not skilled in the evaluation and management of whiplash injuries, and do not actively manage these cases. 

As a result they really don’t appreciate the severity and chronicity of the symptoms arising from whiplash injuries. 

Let’s list out the causes first…

  • Poor examination, diagnosis, and management: the gold standard of treatment for any injury or condition rests on an understanding of the injury, understanding the healing pathway of the tissues involved, and the appropriate treatment. 

If you fracture a bone it is well understood the proper treatment involves avoiding weight bearing on that bone if it is a leg and immobilizing the fracture (casting, splinting) for a period of time to allow healing to happen.

  • Delayed Treatment: it makes no sense to delay treatment to wait and see if the injury is not healing properly. Far too often physicians tell their whiplash patients to return if they continue to have problems. By the time that happens the injuries have started to heal improperly. 

These same physicians would never send a patient with an infection away and tell them if it continued to cause fever and other symptoms to come back for an antibiotic.

  • Improper Treatment: the appropriate treatment for any injured and damaged tissue must consider the function of that tissue and how it heals. The soft tissue injuries of whiplash – muscles, joints, tendons, discs, nerves – are tissues that move as part of their function (to a lesser degree with nerves). 

It is well known that for tissues that provide for motion in the body, restoring and maintaining proper ranges of motion is a key goal in providing treatment to restore those tissues to as close to pre-injury status as possible. 

  • Overactivity: what I mean by this is the whiplash patient forcing themselves to continue with their daily activities at home, at work, and at play despite recurrent aggravations of their pain. They are routinely exceeding the capacity of these injured and healing tissues and causing more long term implications. 

The Top 7 Whiplash Injury Symptoms

There is a very long list of common whiplash symptoms but what follows are perhaps the 7 most common symptoms and what they mean to the long term recovery. 

Here are some of the most common Whiplash Injury Symptoms according to the prestigious Johns Hopkins Medical School.

Symptom #1: Neck Pain is an indication of injury to the soft tissues of the neck involving primarily the muscles, ligaments, and joints. The average human head weighs 11 lbs and when it gets whipped back and forth it causes tearing of these soft tissues. 

Long Term Implication: Degenerative Arthritis is the natural consequence of significant traumatic injury to the neck and the imbalances to the joint that result from that. This takes years to develop but once it does there is no reversing or undoing it. 

Symptom #2: Neck Stiffness is further confirmation of injury to the muscles, ligaments, and joints of the neck. This is often protective initially of an underlying instability due to  ligamentous damage.

Long Term Implication: Degenerative Arthritis and loss of cervical range of motion. A loss of motion coupled with arthritis results in chronic neck and shoulder pain.

Symptom #3: Pain or Numbness in Arm or Hand is an indication of nerve root or nerve damage. Nerves are the most delicate tissues and most susceptible to long term permanent damage. 

Long Term Implication: Nerve Damage to the nerve roots exiting the spine resulting in potential persistent numbness and tingling as well as possible weakness of the muscles of the arm or hand. This can impact the comfort and ability to perform tasks requiring fine motor skills and dexterity. 

Symptom #4: Weakness in Arm or Hand is a sign of injury and damage to the nerves that exit the neck and control the muscles of the arm.

Long Term  Implication: Long term Weakness of the arm coupled with pain that limits the use of the arm and impacts performance in all areas of life. 

Symptom #5: Dizziness can be an indication of cervical spine instability or a possible brain injury.

Long Term Implication: Degenerative Arthritis will eventually follow instability of the cervical spine and with it a progressive worsening of all other neck related symptoms.

Symptom #6: Headaches are an indication of possible brain injury (concussion) as well as injury to the muscles and joints of the cervical spine. 

Long Term Implication: Chronic Headaches and Degenerative Arthritis are common long term complications of cervical whiplash trauma resulting in headaches.

Symptom #7: Sleep Issues and Fatigue are common following whiplash. Pain can make sleep difficult as can trauma to the upper neck affecting the brain stem and the autonomic nervous system. 

Long Term Implication: Long Term Sleep Issues that can also lead to a host of issues from Chronic Fatigue to Anxiety and Depression. 

Hopefully the point has been made that whiplash injuries are serious and taking a wait and see attitude is dramatically increasing the risks for long term pain and greater limitations of function. 

Regardless of the care needed from chiropractic to pain management to surgery the sooner you start treating whiplash injuries the greater are your chances to avoid long term chronic symptoms that interfere with your life. 

Even slight damage to a vehicle is typically a good indication of more severe damage to the occupant. You repair your vehicle, get yourself taken care of. 

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