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What is whiplash & how can it be treated?

Whiplash is a common condition many of us experience unintentionally. Whiplash can occur with motor vehicle accidents, sports trauma or sudden violent motions. For example, tackle sports and jet skiing can cause it. Understanding the mechanism of action with whiplash can help one better understand the nature of this injury.

Whiplash may occur when the head is static or relaxed and then suddenly experiences a forceful forward push or throwback. The head will then ricochet in the opposite direction and eventually come to rest. When left untreated, the side effects of whiplash can last for weeks or months. During the initial phase, when the head is static, none of the muscles supporting the head are engaged. Some may be contracting and relaxing momentarily to support a stable position for the head. At this time, the head isn’t resisting against any force other than gravity. When the head is thrown forcefully, the brain does not anticipate the force and the individual isn’t able to brace themselves for the upcoming force. Once the force occurs, the head ricochets back, and the muscles begin to contract intensely. This is done in order to stabilize the head and counteract the initial impact. The muscles reactively contract to protect the head from harm. This though doesn’t guarantee the head won’t move. Instead the muscles are being forcefully lengthened and damaged. Once the force has passed and the head is stable, muscles supporting the head will continue to tighten and stay contracted. This will often bring pain and significant deficits in range of motion.

The recommended treatment for this condition is active physical therapy and/or chiropractic treatment. Some treatments include gently stretching the head and neck and guiding it through different motions. This helps lengthen the tight muscles, decrease tension and any associated pain. Applying cold packs for 15–20 minutes is another simple remedy that can be done at home. Whiplash can go away on its own over time, but chiropractic treatment and physical therapy are recommended. Performing soft tissue mobilization techniques in order to relax the muscle yields good benefits. While individuals may perform stretches on their own at home, this helps better relax the targeted muscles, and a clinician may help pinpoint the targeted muscles to relax. A skilled physical therapist and chiropractor may identify which muscle is most vulnerable by applying proper stretching, massage, and soft tissue mobilization technique. They will focus on the vulnerable muscles and apply proper stretching, massage, and soft tissue mobilization.

With these treatments, the muscles can relax, lengthen, and be restored to their previous condition. Another possible treatment includes joint mobilization. By aiding the joint and promoting any movement which is deficient, joint play and range of motion can be better restored. Whiplash primarily affects the neck, the main joints affected are those in the cervical spine, commonly referred to as zygopophyseal joints, or Z joints. Physical therapy may help take the joints through their range of motion and restore joint play. A chiropractor may do this as well as perform adjustments and manipulations. Before doing any of these procedures, it’s important to loosen the muscle as much as possible first. A tight muscle further limits the degree to which a joint moves, while a loosened and relaxed muscle doesn’t create the same limitation.

Other passive treatments include Kinesiotape application. Kinesiotape helps restore proper head and neck posture and can be continued outside of the clinic while improving strength gains as well as improving posture.

The above treatments are common protocols that yield significant benefits for patients diagnosed with whiplash. Before starting treatment, it is important to rule out any other conditions, which may occur during the events when a whiplash is sustained. These include avulsion fracture, clay shoveler’s fractures, concussions, and others not listed here. Some of these conditions have severe risks associated with them and require prioritized treatments before performing physical therapy and chiropractic. It is best to treat whiplash as soon as it occurs. However, if a patient has had it for years and never addressed it, it is still possible to treat and return the body to the way it should be.


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