Whiplash and Chiropractic

By Cynthia Horner DC

The Crash

Symptoms of whiplash are very often noticed months after a crash, as it was with this patient. It was the subtle, nagging feelings after the crash that he talked about, it wasn’t that crash itself:  which was a result of nothing more than his greed for time, but what followed has been troubling to him. When he sat in his car he could hear the crunch of the gravel under the tires of the cars slowly passing by and he could see the annoyance in the faces peering through the windows of those cars, annoyed at the stupidity that caused their delay. He thought and said out loud to himself, “I’m okay; I’m conscious, I can move my toes and fingers no searing neck pain”. He watched steam rise out of the front of his car as people with cell phones in hand seemed to be moving in slow motion. The sting from the air bag where it hit his face made him strangely feel alive.crash

It was two months after the accident that he walked into my office.  “I’m not sure if I need to be here I’m not in pain, but since my auto accident 2 months ago I haven’t been able to sleep well, I have a constant low grade headache, my hands are always cold, and I feel like I can’t  concentrate as well as I used to.” We sat and talked for 20 minutes about his subtle but nagging symptoms.

Immediately following an accident you might ask the question; should I go to a chiropractor?

“Whiplash” itself is a non-medical term for an acceleration-deceleration injury caused by a sudden violent movement of the neck and head backward and forward from trauma such as a car accident, or from a slip or fall, or a sports injury. This whipping motion of the head causes considerable damage to the ligaments and muscles (often called soft tissue) that support the head and neck. It also causes an overstretching of nerve tissue that results in altering the messages the nerve tissue carries.

Whiplash can be very serious. It is also capable of causing damage to the discs between the vertebrae, breaking or chipping bones and severely injuring the brain and nerves. Severe head injuries such as ‘mild traumatic brain injuries’ (TBI) are common. The brain and skull are both round so on impact the brain slides up the bony skull often tearing connect tissue that holds brain, meninges, blood vessels and skull where they should be.  Whiplash neck trauma is actually under-diagnosed to a great extent. It’s also under-treated in many cases. Many doctors’ approach begins and ends with the prescription of pain medication, and muscle relaxers which really only mask the problem. However, a good chiropractor should be capable of much more.

So back to the question; is it wise to see a chiropractor after a whiplash injury? 

The short answer is YES. Here is what you need to know…

The body responds to these types of injuries by immobilizing the area in order to minimize additional damage (this is referred to as muscle guarding or splinting). Spinal joints can become stiff and highly limited in movement, even to the point of being totally fixed in place. Taking a muscle relaxer at this stage is not helpful to the process but creates more long term problems.

In addition the eyes are designed with a reflexive mechanism to move opposite of head movements. When the spinal cord has been stretched or nerves impinged the brain isn’t getting clear messages from the body about where the head is; this miscommunication about head position often results in blurred vision, dizziness, headaches and fatigue.

My Chiropractic Assessment for Whiplash Injury

The first thing I do in treating a whiplash patient is a chiropractic analysis & neurological exam to rule out all the red flag conditions such as:

  • Brain injury
  • Nerve tearing
  • Torn ligaments
  • Fractures or dislocations

My Examination Includes:

Posture Analysis; posture is nothing more than your body responding to where your brain thinks you are. Your brain is constantly correcting and re-correcting your body position to line you up to where it thinks you should be in space, it is dependent on how your brain and nervous system are functioning.

Muscle Tone Assessment; muscle tone is the result of consistent, even signals from your brain reaching muscles.  Anything that alters nerve transmission can cause ‘static in the lines’  the result is loss of tone or the opposite, increased tightness in muscles. This can result in hyper or hypo muscle stretch reflexes tested by striking your tendon with a reflex hammer.

Balance; is created by involuntary muscles responding to a multitude of signals from the brain to keep your eyes level with the horizon and upright in gravity.

Eye Movements; eyes are literally a window to the brain. Through assessing different types of eye movements (slow tracking, and fast movements) wiring in the brain can be evaluated. Then using eye movements brain function can be improved.

Palpation; describes touching the body to assess joint movement including rolling, sliding & gliding  of vertebral joints.

My Chiropractic Treatment for Whiplash Injuries:

When treating my immediate objective is to stabilize the muscles and ligaments and to support the vertebrae and decrease pain. I do this by working with the brain centers that control muscle tone and centers that inhibit pain. Also I often use low force adjusting to fast stretch muscles and  better aligned vertebrae.

My second objective is to restore communication from the body to the brain. This mismatch (what is really happening in the body, and what the brain perceives as happening) is called dys-afferentation. It simply means there is a ‘dys’ or disconnect in (afferent) or incoming messages to the brain. When this happens what follows is inappropriate messages going out from the brain to the body. The inappropriate messages may be altered muscle control or coordination, increased or decreased muscle tone, or aberrant sensations such as pain, numbness, tingling, crawling of skin, or cold extremities. Many times the inappropriate message can mask pain or extenuate pain.

To do this I use:

  • adjusting of the spine which is the most powerful way to affect the brain
  • specific eye movements
  • passive stretching,
  • active stretching,
  • balancing postures
  • vibration of nerve receptors
  • light stimulation
  • sound stimulation.   

Usually within three weeks to a few months the joints are stable and the body and brain are again communicating, and annoying and painful symptoms resolve.