WHIPLASH and pain science

by | Aug 8, 2018 | New this month

Among most people in North America (and many other countries) there’s an expectation that if you are in a care accident, you may develop whiplash and chronic pain.

This belief is so very prevalent that a great number of therapists and entire clinics have emerged to specialize in this particular injury and the following chronic pain disorder. I, too, have fallen prey to this belief – till recently, that is.

So what is whiplash, and why does it tend to cause neck pain for months, years, or even decades?

Whiplash occurs when someone is in a car accident and the head is thrown backwards, causing strain to the tendons and ligaments of the neck. As anyone who had whiplash knows the resulting pain can last, it seems, forever.

But does that really make sense?

If you fracture a bone, you may experience some pain for a while. But as the fracture heals, the pain eventually subsides and goes away.

A whiplash injury is a sprain or strain of the neck, certainly a less injury than a fracture. We don’t expect ankle sprain / strain last for years and years, so why wouldn’t a whiplash injury heal just as rapidly?

If you have worked with me before, you already know the answer – it lies in the nerve connections (yes, me again – and the nervous system stuff!)

Once the nerve connections have fired due to injury, they can become quickly learned (learned means “sensitized” – read more about nervous system sensitization here).

And if the accident occurs at a time in your life when there are other significant stressors (as if being in the car wreck is not stressful enough!), the chance that chronic pain will develop is greatly increased.

These activated, irritated and highly sensitive nerve endings keep firing and eventually (this “eventually” only takes a few days – and, for some people, a few hours) become wired so that pain can continue for a long time, even though the ligament strain will typically heal within a week or two.

Think I am full of beans? Consider this:

A well – documented 2001 study helps us understand whiplash in more detail. During this study researches put fifty people in a stimulation that created the sensation of having a car accident that might cause whiplash. The participants had the experience of accident, yet their necks didn’t move at all.

You might be surprised to hear that 10% of people participating in the study reported neck pain four weeks after the stimulated accident.

Why?

The researches found that the people who developed persistent neck pain were the ones who had most stress and emotional distress in their lives at the time of experiment. 

I find understanding these mind-body interactions both fascinating and hope – producing. Even more exciting is the fact that people who become aware of their body-mind interactions are able to improve (and often get rid of “chronic whiplash syndrome”) sometimes in as little as 3 weeks.

 

Hey, my name is Julia

Living with chronic pain has taught me to look for solutions in unlikely places –  places where most people see only problems.

Over the years I’ve gotten to be pretty good at this problem-solving and silver-lining finding thing.

So good that I felt compelled to share what I’ve learned and help others to find their sea legs while navigating, living, and winning their battle with chronic pain.

Hey, my name is Julia

Living with chronic pain has taught me to look for solutions in unlikely places –  places where most people see only problems.

Over the years I’ve gotten to be pretty good at this problem-solving and silver-lining finding thing.

So good that I felt compelled to share what I’ve learned and help others to find their sea legs while navigating, living, and winning their battle with chronic pain.