Upper Back Issues

Whiplash

Causes
When the head and neck are suddenly and forcefully whipped forward and back, mechanical forces place excessive stress on the cervical spine. Traumatic disc rupture and soft tissue damage can occur. The cartilage between the disc and the vertebral bone is often cracked. This is known as a rim lesion.

Damage to the disc can put pressure on the nerves as they exit the spine. The pressure or irritation can be felt as numbness on the skin, weakness in the muscles, or pain along the path of the nerve. Most people think of these symptoms as indications of a pinched nerve. Health care providers call this condition cervical radiculopathy.

Soft tissue around the facet joint can be injured. Many of the pain-sensing nerves of the spine are in the facet joints. The normally smooth surfaces on which these joints glide can become rough, irritated, and inflamed. Studies show that neck pain often comes from the damaged facet joints.

Low back pain is a common feature after a whiplash injury. Studies show that there is significant electrical activity in the muscles of the lumbar spine when the neck is extended. This effect increases when there is neck pain, possibly as a way to help stabilize the spine when neck pain causes weakness.

More than anyplace else in the body, the muscles of the neck sense sudden changes in tension and respond quickly. Tiny spindles in the muscles signal the need for more muscle tension to hold against the sudden shift in position.

The result is often muscle spasm as a self-protective measure. The increased muscle tone prevents motion of the inflamed joint. You may experience neck stiffness as a result.

Risk Factors
Each year, about three million people experience whiplash injuries to their neck and back. Of these three million people, only about one-half, will fully recover. About 600,000 of those individuals will have long-term symptoms, and 150,000 will actually become disabled as a result of the injury.

There are many factors that come into play when a person is injured in a rear-end motor vehicle accident. Any one or more of the following factors can affect recovery:

  • Head turned one way or the other at the time of the impact (increases risk of nerve involvement with pain down the arm)
  • Getting hit from behind (rear-impact collision)
  • Previous neck pain or headaches
  • Previous similar injury
  • Being unaware of the impending impact
  • Poor posture at the time of impact (head, neck, or chest bent forward)
  • Poor position of the headrest or no headrest
  • Crash speed under 10 mph
  • Being in the front seat as opposed to sitting in the back seat of the car
  • Collision with a vehicle larger than yours
  • Being of slight build
  • Wearing a seatbelt (a seat belt should always be worn, but at lower speeds, a lap and shoulder type
  • seat belt will increase the chances of injury)

Symptoms

  • Neck pain or neck pain that travels down the arm (radiculopathy)
  • Headaches
  • Low back pain (LBP)
  • Jaw pain
  • Dizziness

Ninety percent of patients involved in whiplash type accidents complain of neck pain. This is by far the most common symptom. The pain often spreads into the upper back, between the shoulder blades, or down the arm. Neck pain that goes down the arm is called radiculopathy.

Low back pain (LBP) can occur as a result of a whiplash injury. The Insurance Research Council reports that LBP occurs in 39 per cent of whiplash patients. Some studies found LBP to be present in 57 per cent of rear-impact collisions in which injuries were reported and 71 per cent of side-impact collisions.

Jaw pain as a result of temporomandibular joint (TMJ) injury can also cause painful headaches. The TMJ is formed by the bone of the mandible (lower jaw) connecting to the temporal bone at the side of the skull. The TMJ is a hinge joint that allows the jaw to open and close and to move forward, back, and sideways. Pain in this joint in called temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD).

Dizziness is quite common with a sense of lost balance being reported. It is caused by an injury to the joints of the neck called facet or zygapophyseal joints. When dizziness is reported, it should be distinguished from vertigo (also known as benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), which results from an injury to the inner ear.

Other symptoms often reported include, but are not limited to: shoulder pain; numbness or tingling in the arms, hands, legs or feet; facial pain, fatigue, confusion, poor concentration, irritability, difficulty sleeping, forgetfulness, visual problems, and mood disorders.

It is not uncommon to have a delay in your symptoms. It is actually more common to have a 24 to 72 hour delay as opposed to immediate symptoms or pain. This is most likely due to the fact that it takes the body 24 to 72 hours to develop inflammation. Disc injuries may take even longer to manifest themselves. It is not uncommon for a disc injury to remain pain free and unnoticed for weeks to months.

Simply because there is little or no damage to your car does not mean that you were not injured. In fact, more than half of all whiplash injuries occur where there was little or no damage to one or both of the vehicles involved.

When we see visible damage to a car, it means that the car has absorbed much of that force and less force is transmitted to the occupant. On the other hand, if there is little or no damage to the car, the force is notabsorbed but transferred to the driver or passengers, potentially resulting in greater injury.