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Most people think of a whiplash injury as a sore neck. In fact, a variety of complications are associated with whiplash injuries. Victims who experience a whiplash due to another person’s negligence deserve compensation when they suffer from long-term disabling conditions.

Most whiplash injuries occur in rear-end collision. The accident victim’s torso is pushed back into the car seat as the car accelerates forward. That leads to a compression of spinal discs in the neck and back as the back straightens violently. When the car seat pushes the torso forward, the crash victim’s head moves back. In response to the car’s deceleration, the head moves forward. The rapid backward-and-forward movement of the head, typically occurring in less than a half second, strains and tears muscles, tendons, and nerves in the neck.

Head and Neck Pain

Headaches and neck pain are the most common symptoms associated with whiplash injuries. Neck pain can be constant or it can be induced by moving the head and neck. Pain might be triggered by rotating the head to the left or right, by moving the head to look up or down, or by tilting the head to either side. In some cases, any movement produces pain.

Studies indicate that pain from whiplash injuries is often associated with the cervical spine’s facet joints. Those are the joints in your spine that allow the neck to bend and twist. Facet joints are surrounded and supported by tissues known as capsular ligaments. Injuries to those ligaments and to the facet joints are typically responsible for the chronic neck pain that accident victims experience after a rear-end collision.

In some cases, whiplash can produce cervical spine instability. That condition, which might be perceived as muscle spasms in the neck, can be catastrophic. Cervical spine instability is characterized by damage to the nerves, vertebrae, and/or connective tissues in the neck. Left untreated it can lead to broken vertebrae and severe chronic pain. Victims who experience cervical spine instability may need to wear a neck brace or collar until the spine stabilizes. Some patients may require spinal fusion surgery.

Referred Pain

The sensation of pain is transmitted to the brain through nerves. The sensation begins with nociceptors. Nociceptors are nerve cells located in the root of the nerve. When nociceptors are stimulated in a way that might be damaging, they send a signal along the nerve. The brain perceives that signal as pain. The path that the signal travels is known as a “pain pathway.”

A comprehensive review of whiplash injury studies published in 2011 concluded that nociceptors in the neck become hypersensitive after a whiplash injury. In other words, a stimulus like heat, pressure, or vibration that would not normally produce pain is more likely to be perceived as painful by an accident victim who has experienced whiplash. Pain is perceived as coming from the neck, but it can also be felt in more remote sites along the pain pathway, including shoulder and arms. The victim may also experience pain in other parts of the central nervous system, even though those parts of the body were not injured in the accident. Pain that is felt in uninjured parts of the body is known as “referred pain.”

Long-term disorders

Studies show that about one-third of whiplash victims recover within 3 months. The recovery rate increases to about 40% after 6 months. Still, about half of accident victims who suffer from a whiplash injury continue to experience neck pain a year after the accident, and nearly half continue to have neck pain 2 years after the accident. About 30% of whiplash victims become moderately to severely disabled by their conditions.

In addition to causing chronic pain, whiplash injuries can limit the ability to move neck muscles, making it difficult to perform simple tasks like looking over the shoulder to check for traffic while driving in reverse. Whiplash injuries can also disturb the ability of injury victims to move their eyes smoothly, can upset the victim’s balance and impair posture, and can make it difficult for victims to hold their heads in an upright position.

Other conditions associated with whiplash include dizziness, tinnitus (“ringing” in the ears), and visual disturbances. The sharp pain associated with whiplash can make it difficult to sleep and to concentrate.

Psychological consequences of a whiplash injury commonly include depression. In some cases, depression persists for more than one year. Other adverse psychological outcomes include long-lasting distress, anxiety, and fear of movement. About 17% of whiplash victims develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that lasts for more than a year following the onset of the injury.

Given the serious potential long-term consequences of a whiplash injury, accident victims should take them seriously. Obtaining medical attention as soon as neck pain, headaches, or other symptoms develop is crucial.

A personal injury lawyer can help whiplash victims obtain reimbursement of their medical expenses and compensation for pain, suffering, emotional distress, lost income, and disabilities produced by whiplash injuries. The first step in healing, however, is to see a doctor and to follow the doctor’s advice. Failing to follow through with appointments and treatment recommendations inevitably harms the ability of whiplash victims to get the compensation they deserve.