Whiplash can cause severe pain and disabilities. It can even result in permanent damage to the spine that produces weakness and nerve pain that radiates from your neck into your head and upper limbs.
As a result, you might need surgery, physical therapy, and medication after a whiplash injury. Worse yet, your injuries might force you to miss time from work or even quit your job altogether.
What Is the Structure of Your Neck?
Your neck includes the top seven vertebrae of your spine. Doctors refer to this segment of your spine as the cervical spine.
The top vertebra attaches to your skull. The bottom vertebra attaches to your thoracic spine. In between, ligaments hold the cervical vertebrae to each other. These ligaments are strong and elastic. They hold the spine together while permitting the neck to flex and twist and allowing you to lift and turn your head.
Intervertebral discs sit between the vertebrae. These discs include a firm outer ring called the annulus and a soft inner gel called the nucleus pulposus. Together, these structures cushion your vertebrae from impacting or grinding as you bend, walk, or jump.
The spinal cord passes through the spinal canal of your spine. This passageway protects your spinal cord from injury by surrounding it with bone and collagen. The nerves of your spinal cord connect your brain to your body.
All spinal nerves pass through your neck, including those running to your upper and lower limbs and your abdominal and thoracic muscles. At each vertebra, nerve roots branch from the spinal cord. These nerve roots gather sensory signals and carry motor signals.
Your neck muscles attach to your skeleton through tendons. The neck muscles connect your skull, spine, shoulder blades, and collarbones. These muscles support the weight of your head. The neck muscles also turn, tilt, and nod your head.
How Do Whiplash Injuries Happen?
Whiplash results from rapid acceleration or deceleration. These motions hyperextend and compress your spine, damaging the soft tissues and bones.
For example, in a car accident, your body tries to keep moving after you collide with a vehicle or fixed object. Your body hits your seat belt (or your steering wheel or dashboard). But your head keeps moving, pulling your neck and hyperextending your spine. The vertebrae separate slightly, and the ligaments, tendons, and muscles stretch.
As you come to a stop, the elastic ligaments pull your spine back together. The discs and vertebrae compress.
This might not seem like much force. But your head weighs 10 to 11 pounds. Even in a low-speed crash, this weight can generate considerable force. You can imagine the force your head exerts on your neck by visualizing a gallon of paint moving 20 to 30 miles per hour.
Whiplash can also happen in other types of accidents. In a slip and fall accident, the impact of your body on the ground can cause your head to whip back. In addition to straining your neck, you can suffer head trauma or brain injury.
What Types of Whiplash Injuries Can Occur?
Whiplash can damage many of the structures in your neck. This tissue damage produces injuries like:
Neck strain happens when you hyperextend the muscles and tendons in your neck. When they stretch, the muscle and tendon fibers develop small tears. If they stretch far enough, you can suffer a full-thickness tear.
Symptoms of neck strain include:
- Muscle pain and stiffness
- Muscle spasms
The symptoms of neck strain will usually clear up in four to six weeks with rest. Your doctor may prescribe physical therapy to help you rebuild the injured tissues.
You suffer a sprained neck when the ligaments between the vertebrae hyperextend. Like muscles and tendons, your ligaments can tear when they stretch too far.
Symptoms of a sprained neck include:
- Spine pain
- Limited range of head motion
You may also feel or hear a pop in your neck when you sprain it. Mild sprains heal in four to six weeks. Severe sprains may take significantly longer to heal.
Bulging or Herniated Disc
Pressure on the discs can deform them. If the nucleus pulposus squeezes out of the disc and forms a protrusion, you have a herniated disc. If the annulus collapses and the disc flattens like a pancake, you have a bulging disc. In either case, the deformed disc will destabilize your spine and press on nearby nerve roots.
Compressed nerve roots can swell and misfire.
As a result, you could experience the following:
- Pain that radiates from your neck into your shoulders, arms, and hands
- Numbness or tingling in your upper extremities
- Loss of finger dexterity
- Upper limb weakness
Doctors cannot repair deformed discs. Instead, they will inject anti-inflammatories into your neck to reduce the inflammation of the nerve roots or operate and remove the deformed disc. Neither solution solves the problem permanently, and you could suffer from neck symptoms for the rest of your life.
When your spine hyperextends and compresses, the forces on your vertebrae can snap them.
A fractured neck vertebra can paralyze you when bone fragments enter the spinal canal and sever the spinal cord. If EMTs suspect you may have a broken neck, they will stabilize your neck with a brace to minimize the risk that a bone fragment will dislocate into your spinal canal.
What Compensation Can You Pursue for a Whiplash Injury?
If your whiplash injury resulted from someone else’s actions, you may have a personal injury claim. In this injury claim, you will need to prove liability by showing that the other person intentionally or negligently injured you.
If you prove liability, you can recover compensation for your economic and non-economic losses. This compensation will put you back into the same financial position as before the accident by paying you for your medical costs, lost wages, and diminished earning capacity.
You can also obtain compensation for the impact on your quality and enjoyment of life. These losses include physical pain, mental suffering, and disability.