Whiplash is the most common injury in motor vehicle collisions. While symptoms typically include neck pain, neck stiffness, dizziness, and headaches, some experts now suggest that changes in the brain’s pain and posture-processing regions may be linked to long-term whiplash-like symptoms that have gone undiagnosed.
Many people suffer from whiplash injuries and receive quick diagnosis and treatment. There are those who experience chronic whiplash, but go undiagnosed and feel desperate for pain relief. As it turns out, about three in 1,000 people suffer from whiplash at some point in their lives. One in four go through chronic whiplash.
So how can whiplash go undiagnosed? Well, many cases of whiplash occur in car accidents that don’t involve a high speed. The driver’s neck can move forward or backwards like a whip even in cases where accidents involve low speed. It is not uncommon to walk away from an accident feeling fine, but some people discover after the accident that they are in pain. Many people report symptoms that do not show up on tests, so they never receive a proper diagnosis.
The new research revealed changes in the regions of the brain connected to pain and posture-processing. The scientists scanned the brains of healthy women and women with whiplash symptoms using a technique called positron emission tomography, or PET. They exposed each group to four different levels of non-painful electrical neck stimulation and scanned their brains. They detected changes in the blood flow in areas of the brain involved in pain perception and processing sensory information. The researchers say the changes could be the result of a mismatch in the way stimuli are integrated in pain-processing regions. While more investigation is required, the team is confident that they can now say, “There is something happening in the brain”.
Some experts believe this would explain why some people with whiplash have chronic symptoms and hope that the findings bring more awareness to the disorder.
Aside from car accidents, whiplash can be attained during sporting events. For instance, many amateur and professional athletes who play contact sports are more prone to whiplash.
Identifying whiplash-related chronic pain with MRI: Earlier study
In most cases where a person suffers from whiplash, there is a full recovery in a month or two. Unfortunately, statistics show that about one quarter of those afflicted with whiplash develop chronic symptoms. Using special MRI imaging, scientists at Northwestern Medicine have been able to help determine which patients will develop chronic pain within two weeks on the initial injury. This can allow for faster and more specialized treatment, thus providing the potential for lowering long-term disability and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The MRI can measure fat/water ratio in muscles. Scientists discovered that people with chronic symptoms had a large amount of fat seeping into the neck muscles. This is the kind of situation that can lead to muscle atrophy. As a result of these findings, some scientists now believe that whiplash patients are not all the same and, therefore, should be treated differently.
The physical pain is only part of the problem associated with whiplash. There is also lost work productivity, a large number of insurance claims, and of course the strain on our healthcare system that all have to be taken into account. While many people joke about whiplash, a lot of Americans who suffer long-term whiplash symptoms are not laughing. Having a better understanding of what leads to the debilitating symptoms does give them hope though.