Notes from an emergency room doctor: "I've
got whiplash!" patients will cry, arriving
in an E.R. by ambulance or by foot after a car
accident. Emergency rooms across the country see
more than a million people each year complaining
of "whiplash," a severe hyperextension
injury to the neck muscles. There are more than
12 million motor vehicle accidents in the United
States each year. And about one-third of them
are rear end collisions, the most common cause
of "whiplash" injuries.
The origin of the term is not certain. It may
have started with World War I navy pilots who
suffered neck strain when their planes were "whipped"
off the decks of ships by catapult. Fortunately,
the navy recognized the problem quickly and provided
shoulder harnesses and protective headrests for
their pilots. It wasn't until fifty years later
that auto manufacturers adopted this same remedy.
Proper headrests can also reduce the likelihood
of neck strain in rear-end motor vehicle collisions.
Unfortunately, many people do not have their car
headrests properly positioned. A headrest in a
down position does not protect a person of average
height. In fact, if adjustable headrests are too
low, they can act as a fulcrum and cause a more
A whiplash injury, also called cervical muscle
strain, not only causes neck pain but is frequently
associated with other symptoms like muscle tension
headaches, dizziness, and "paresthesias,"
a tingling and numbness in the upper limbs.
Routine treatment consists of anti-inflammatory
pain medications, muscle relaxants, ice for 24
hours followed by local heat applications, and
the wearing of a soft cervical collar for 2 or
3 weeks. If pain persists, physical therapy and
cervical traction are sometimes prescribed.
Nearly 50% of victims are better just a few
weeks after injury. But ten years after, as many
as one-third of whiplash victims still complain
The rate of litigation after whiplash injuries
is exceedingly high. Because there is generally
no radiologic or diagnostic test that can confirm
a cervical strain, those suffering from whiplash
often fall suspect to having an emotional problem
or a compensation neurosis, especially if symptoms
persist and become a jumping board to litigation.
E.R. physicians become particularly suspicious
when a patient arrives complaining of neck pain
several days after an accident and comments, "my
attorney told me to come." In one retrospective
study of emergency room patients complaining of
whiplash, 81% were found to be seeking some form
Although we live in a terribly litigious world,
one that leads us to suspect malingerers, most
whiplash patients are sincere as evidenced by
the fact that very few who have persistent symptoms
get cured by favorable verdicts.
In the course of your life the odds are good
that you'll be the cause of, or the victim of,
this ailment. The best cure is the best prevention.
Keep an adequate distance between cars, properly
position your headrest, and for god sake watch
the road instead of yakking on the car phone or