The average human head weighs 10-11 pounds, which may not seem like a lot, but when this weight whips back and forth, your neck can pay the price. Whiplash injuries can range from minor to severe, and create ongoing problems that last for months — even years.

Here at Tri-State Orthopaedics, under the guidance of Apurva Dalal, MD, we want to help our patients in Memphis and Germantown, Tennessee, understand and recognize a whiplash injury so we can take early action to prevent more serious problems down the road.

Here’s what you need to know about a whiplash injury and how it affects your cervical spine.

Anatomy 101

Before we get into the whiplash injury, it’s helpful to take a step back to review the anatomy it affects, namely your neck. At the heart of your neck is your cervical spine, which is made up of seven small vertebrae that are responsible for the support and movement of your head. These vertebrae also provide passage for your nervous system through the spinal canal.

Surrounding your cervical spine is a complex network of muscles, ligaments, and tendons, which provide crucial support and range of motion.

The whip of a lash

Whiplash is one of the most aptly named injuries, as it directly describes what happens to your neck during a collision. While whiplash is largely associated with automobile accidents where you’re rear-ended, any impact that causes your head to whip back and forth can lead to this type of injury.

The 10-11 pounds that a head typically weighs may not seem so significant, but the force these pounds can apply when they’re whipped around is considerable. And attempting to keep everything stable is your cervical spine, along with the surrounding soft tissue.

To give you a better idea about how whiplash develops, let’s envision a car accident and follow what happens in your neck in a collision. When you’re first hit, your spine compresses and forces your cervical spine up against your head. As your body moves forward, your head doesn’t move with it, which can damage the bones in your vertebrae as they compress together.

When your head slams into the headrest, soft tissue in the front of your neck is strained. And when your head whips forward again, the connective tissue in the back of your neck can be injured.

Degrees of whiplash

Without getting into a physics lesson, there are many degrees of whiplash damage, factoring in several variables, such as the speed of the collision and the position of your body. In minor cases, your neck may feel sore for a few days, and the condition typically resolves itself on its own.

In moderate-to-severe cases, you can develop symptoms within the first 24 hours, but sometimes people have delayed symptoms, even up to three months after the incident. Whenever they arrive, the most common symptoms of a whiplash injury are:

  • Pain in the neck
  • Stiffness
  • Shoulder and upper back pain
  • Headache
  • Radiating tingling or numbness down your shoulders and arms

While these are the most common symptoms, there are many other problems that can crop up, which is why we now group them under whiplash-associated disorders. The bottom line is that if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, and they’re persistent, it’s time to come in and see us so we can check for damage.

Treating whiplash

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to whiplash, and we recommend treatment plans based on the severity of damage. Often, it comes down to a balance of resting your neck, while also moving it gently so it doesn’t freeze up. If there’s bone damage that’s affecting your nerves, we work with you to ensure that it heals properly.

If you have more questions about whiplash, don’t hesitate to give us a call or use the online scheduling tool to set up an appointment.

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