Whiplash is one of the most common traumas to the neck. It usually happens when an automobile must stop very suddenly, and especially at a wrong angle. It may also occur if a stationary car is rear-ended by another fast-moving vehicle. An injury to delicate neck structures occurs when the sudden and high-impact force snaps the head of the driver violently forward and backward, causing a mild to moderate strain in the neck region.
The most common neck structures prone to whiplash injury and whiplash-associated disorders (WADs) are the intervertebral disks, tendons and ligaments, muscles, and nerves.
So at what speed does whiplash occur? It doesn’t take a very high-speed collision to suffer a severe neck injury such as whiplash. The sensitive neck structure, such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerves in the neck, can sustain damage or experience micro-tears even in a low-speed crash. Statistical data show that a person doesn’t have to be driving fast to suffer whiplash as some injuries happen at speeds as low as 10 to 15 km/h, especially if the head and neck move the wrong way! Of note, this is often the speed limit for parking lots!
Although whiplash injury is commonly associated with high-speed car collisions and other automobile injuries, it can also be due to being punched or shaken forcefully sports injury, and sudden stops in roller coasters. Kids can also suffer whiplash injuries or brain damage when they are shaken violently. You might have some whiplash injury if a car has “bumped” into your vehicle recently or if you are experiencing one of the following symptoms;
- Neck pain and stiffness
- Shoulder pain and stiffness
- Jaw pain (temporomandibular joint symptoms)
- Arm pain or weakness
- Visual disturbances
- Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
Even a mild whiplash injury could prove fatal and require immediate medical intervention, pain-relieving medications, and a neck brace. Most of the time, the symptoms are acute and resolve within days. However, if left untreated, some may become chronic and linger for years.
Contrary to popular belief, a whiplash injury can also happen in low-speed collisions. Low-speed crashes, usually in the form of rear-end collisions, are responsible for 20-30% of the neck injuries around the globe. In a rear-end collision, even a smaller collision force is quite enough to cause adequate damage to the delicate neck structures and soft tissues. High-speed collisions are more likely to cause moderate to severe injuries such as fractured bones, internal injuries, and traumatic brain injuries.
No matter what the car’s speed at the time of the accident, you should not take it for granted and consult your doctor as soon as possible. Neglecting the mild symptoms or failure to get medical attention can cause problems in the future as it will be more difficult to treat chronic symptoms.