Physical Therapy for Whiplash

Published by Shauna Burchett, OTR/L on

Whiplash treatment at Synergy

What Is Whiplash?

Whiplash is very well known but not very well understood. It’s actually not one specific condition at all – considering it a disorder would be more appropriate. It is a vague term meaning some form of dysfunction of the neck, head, arms or upper extremities.

Whiplash occurs after a traumatic incident when the head is suddenly accelerated or decelerated without the body coming along. For example, in a car accident, your trunk and lower extremities are held in place by the seat belt but your head is unsecured. A properly situated head rest will remedy a lot of this stabilization if the head is whipped backwards. This sudden movement does involve the whole body not just the neck and head.

One of the most confusing aspects of whiplash is the fact that sometimes the symptoms do not show up for hours, days, weeks and even months. Also not understood is what is affected by the whiplash. Injuries are limited to muscles but can damage ligaments, fascia, facet joints, intervertebral discs, or compress the vascular structures of the neck.

Whiplash Treatment

Treatments to help reduce pain and increase range of motion differ as most are focused only on the muscles and tendons while over looking the more complex structures. One commonly overlooked problem is overstretched vascular structures. There is some laxity in the blood vessels but the stretch is limited to the normal range of motion of the neck. With a high speed incident the body is pushed beyond it’s normal range of motion which causes the body, through it’s stretch receptors, to tighten down the vessels and fascial layers in order to protect them. Pain from tightened fascia and compressed blood vessels is different than that of a tight muscle. Patients usually report that pain is more diffused and “nervy” feeling and commonly complain of muscle weakness. The tightness experienced in the blood vessels and fascial layers causes the nervous system to become very agitated. To get the pain to reduce and to increase the range of motion of the neck the blood vessels and the deep fascia have to be treated. To treat these deep fascia layers you don’t have to “go deep”, aggressive treatments can actually irritate the problem more and cause the body to go into a deeper spasm. The last thing the body needs is any other over-stimulation from treatment. A more effective treatment will be aimed at lowering the agitation of the nervous system through the gentle release of the deep and middle cervical fascia. Once the nervous system has calmed down it will allow the range of motion to be restored.

With whiplash, often imaging (x-rays, MRI’s, CT scans) will not show much or anything. This is very frustrating for the person who is experiencing the pain and dysfunction. Most often than not, the best way to show the results of whiplash are thorough examination, WITH THE HANDS, looking for loss of mobility, limitation of movement, level of injury, and depth of restriction.

In conclusion, any sudden trauma, whether it be a fall, sports injury, traumatic brain injury or motor vehicle accident, can and will cause a level of whiplash in the body. This will cause a restriction that will need to be addressed. With all of these conditions the deepest layers will need to be released first in order to get the rest of the body to release. You will need to find a skilled therapist that has extensive training in this area. Only then can you start to correct dysfunctions in the body and work to strengthen and stabilize injured areas. If this is not addressed, the pain relief may be short lived. Remember the most effective treatments are pain-free!

Shauna Burchett, OTR/L

Shauna Burchett, OTR/L is a skilled occupational therapist and the owner of Synergy Healthcare. She graduated from the University of Alberta in 1993 with a degree in Occupational Therapy. Shauna began her career as an occupational therapist specializing in traumatic head injuries. She has also worked in skilled nursing facilities specializing in long and short term geriatric rehabilitation. Shauna has been in private practice since 1998.