Some observations on whiplash injuries

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Motor vehicle accidents with a whiplash mechanism of injury are one of the most common causes of neck injuries, with an incidence of perhaps 1 million per year in the United States. Proper adjustment of head restraints can reduce the incidence of neck pain in rear-end collisions by 24%. Persistent neck pain is more common in women by a ratio of 70:30. Whiplash injuries usually result in neck pain owing to myofascial trauma, which has been documented in both animal and human studies. Headaches, reported in 82% of patients acutely, are usually of the muscle contraction type, often associated with greater occipital neuralgia and less often temporomandibular joint syndrome. Occasionally migraine headaches can be precipitated. Dizziness often occurs and can result from vestibular, central, and cervical injury. More than one third of patients acutely complain of paresthesias, which frequently are caused by trigger points and thoracic outlet syndrome and less commonly by cervical radiculopathy. Some studies have indicated that a postconcussion syndrome can develop from a whiplash injury. Interscapular and low back pain are other frequent complaints. Although most patients recover within 3 months after the accident, persistent neck pain and headaches after 2 years are reported by more than 30% and 10% of patients. Risk factors for a less favorable recovery include older age, the presence of interscapular or upper back pain, occipital headache, multiple symptoms or paresthesias at presentation, reduced range of movement of the cervical spine, the presence of an objective neurologic deficit, preexisting degenerative osteoarthritic changes; and the upper middle occupational category. There is only a minimal association of a poor prognosis with the speed or severity of the collision and the extent of vehicle damage. Whiplash injuries result in long-term disability with upward of 6% of patients not returning to work after 1 year. Although litigation is very common and always raises questions of secondary gain in patients with persistent symptoms, most patients are not cured by a verdict. Acute treatment of neck pain consists of ice for 24 hours followed by heat applications, pain pills, NSAIDs, and muscle relaxants. Trigger point injections can be beneficial in both the acute and the persistent phases. Use of cervical collars should probably be kept to a minimum during the first 2 to 3 weeks after the injury and then avoided. Early passive mobilization and range of motion exercises may accelerate recovery. Physical therapy and transcutaneous nerve stimulators may be helpful in reducing pain and improving movement. For the chronic patient, a multiplicity of treatments are available that need further evaluation with prospective randomized studies. Rather than endlessly debating whether chronic whiplash syndrome exists, the challenge is to determine which current treatments are efficacious and to develop new treatments to help the sizable minority of whiplash victims with chronic pain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)975-997
Number of pages23
JournalNeurologic Clinics
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1992

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology


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