Whiplash occurs when a person’s head is thrust forward or backward in a violent motion, over stressing the muscles and soft tissues in the area. The most common cause of whiplash is a car accident, especially accidents involving a rear-end collision. In this scenario the person who gets rear-ended will be thrust forward, but their head will usually snap backwards as their body is propelled forward.
Depending on the severity of the whiplash, most patients recover from their injury within 1-2 months, but others aren’t so lucky. For some, neck pain due to a whiplash injury becomes chronic, and symptoms remain for months or even years.
Luckily, we’re getting better at assessing whiplash symptoms and predicting who may suffer from long-term symptoms. With help from special MRI imaging, doctors are able to pinpoint with a fair degree of certainty which patients will develop chronic pain, disability and PTSD in the wake of a whiplash injury.
Chronic Pain Prediction
According to researchers at Northwestern Medicine, doctors can predict which patients will develop long-lasting symptoms within the first 14 days from the date of injury. By pinpointing which patients are likely to suffer long-term symptoms, doctors can better treat patients and help prevent potential setbacks down the road.
“This opens up a new door for research on whiplash,” said lead researcher James Elliott said. “For a long time whiplash has been treated as a homogenous condition. Our study has shown these patients are not all the same; they have different clinical signs and symptoms.”
The special MRI technique measures the fat/water ratio in the muscles of a person’s neck, and scientists uncovered that patients who would go on to suffer long-lasting symptoms had larger ratios of fat in their neck muscles. They believe this fatty infiltration could lead to atrophy of the muscles, and their findings were consistent no matter the size or BMI or the patient.
Elliot believes the findings may be most significant for individuals who suffer from PTSD in the wake of a whiplash injury or a traumatic car crash. If a person is deemed at-risk for emotional instability after an accident, doctors can help them get the treatment they need earlier, which can lead to better outcomes.
“These patients have shown to not respond well to traditional rehabilitation such as physical therapy,” Elliott said. “It appears that they may require a more concerted effort for pain management from their physician and help from a psychologist.” Emerging, yet preliminary evidence suggests this to be a reasonable strategy.