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 Whiplash FAQ

Are neck injuries common?

Neck pain is one of the most common reasons why people see their doctor. Almost three quarters of North American adults will suffer from neck pain at some time in their lives. For up to 20% of these people, the pain will not go away. Long-term symptoms, although annoying, typically do not mean there is serious injury. “Hurt” does not necessarily mean “harm”.

What is whiplash?

Whiplash and other medical conditions related to whiplash are a range of neck injuries caused by sudden distortions of the neck. The most common way they happen is through rear-end vehicle crashes. The most frequent symptom reported by whiplash victims is pain due to mild muscle strain or minor tearing of soft tissue. Other injuries include nerve damage, disc damage, and in the most severe cases ruptures of ligaments in the neck and even a broken neck. Minor whiplash injuries generally result in pain and decreased movement in the head and neck. These symptoms usually last only a short time, but sometimes they last longer and include headaches, dizziness, and tingling in the arms.Exactly what happens physically to produce whiplash symptoms is unknown. Some scientists suspect that the biological cause of long-term whiplash symptoms is nerve damage while the cause of short-term pain may be minor muscle strain or sprain.
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What else can cause neck pain besides whiplash?

Many people have neck and shoulder pain. Sitting for long periods of time combined with a lack of exercise can lead to symptoms similar to whiplash. So can living with a lot of tension and stress. It’s important to keep your neck healthy, especially if you’ve already suffered whiplash injury. There are also other medical conditions such as arthritis that can cause neck aches. Your doctor is trained to find them.
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How long will it take to recover?

Every person is different. Aches and pains are part of your body’s response to trauma and stress. Most people can continue with their normal activities and work even though their symptoms may take weeks or months to go away. Healing takes time. For those who need some time away from work, most can return to their usual activities within weeks. Only 3-5% of people with whiplash injuries remain on disability after one year.
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What treatments help?

Most whiplash injuries respond to a simple approach:

  • Keep generally active and do some neck exercises
    Download Neck Exercise Sheet and discuss with your health professional
  • Stay at work or return as soon as you can
    Research shows that people who keep active and are involved with other aspects of their life recover faster than those who focus on their pain
  • Make time for activities that help reduce stress
  • Keep a positive attitude - A sense of humour is essential
  • Prevent future injuries - Get a vehicle with GOOD rated head restraints and adjust them correctly!
    Over a third of chronic neck injuries from rear-end collisions are preventable.

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What else can I do to relieve the pain?

Elderly CoupleThe following are some recommendations about other therapies:

  • Using narcotic painkillers or muscle relaxants is generally not a good idea because they may be harmful.
  • Stay active and exercise. Prolonged rest or use of a collar weakens tissues and slows recovery. Most people do not need a collar.
  • Neck manipulation, mobilization or massage by a trained professional may help in the beginning, but is not recommended as a long-term treatment.
  • Passive treatments such as hot/cold packs or acupuncture are not recommended for prolonged periods. Most passive treatments should be combined with an active exercise program.
  • As a general rule, if a treatment is going to help, you should feel some improvement in days to weeks. If not, check back with your doctor.

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Is it all in my head?

Most physical pain and suffering have a psychological component, especially when pain persists. Pain can sometimes cause fear, anxiety and depression. That is normal. However, if you focus too much on your suffering, your fears and anxieties can make the problem worse. If you find yourself dwelling on pain and suffering, reassure yourself and seek help from your doctor.
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Who’s most likely to get whiplash?

Studies show that young women with flexible necks who are not very muscular are more prone to whiplash. So too are frail or elderly people with neck arthritis. While these two groups are more prone to whiplash, their recovery is generally about the same as others.
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Can I reduce my chance of getting whiplash from a car accident?

Yes. The proper use of well-engineered head restraints dramatically reduces serious neck injuries from automobile accidents. Studies show that vehicles with well designed head restraints can reduce injuries in rear-impact crashes by 24 to 44 per cent. Drivers can protect themselves from whiplash by buying safer vehicles. However, having a car with well-engineered head restraints isn’t enough.To reduce your chance of whiplash, those restraints have to be positioned correctly. Studies by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) found that many head restraints were too low or too far away from the back of an occupant’s head to provide effective protection against neck injury in rear-end crashes. Even when the head restraint is well-engineered, people don’t always position them properly.
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How do I know if my head restraint is positioned correctly?

There are two ways to know:

  1. Is it high enough? The top of the restraint should be even with the top of your head or at least to the top of your ears.
  2. Is it close enough? The restraint should be around 5 cm (2 inches) from the back of your head. Closer head restraints are twice as good at preventing injuries as those set too far back.

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What is the difference between headrests and head restraint devices?

What many motorists refer to as a headrest is actually a head restraint. Many people mistakenly think that restraints are comfort features but they are an essential safety feature like lap/shoulder belts. Effective, well-designed head restraints help move your head forward with your body in a rear-end crash and decrease your chances of sustaining a whiplash injury.
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What happens if the vehicle I’m driving is hit from the rear?

At impact, the vehicle is accelerated forward causing the seat to push against your back (1). Your body is cushioned by the seat while your head and neck continue to move back (2). If your head is unsupported due to an improperly positioned head restraint (top sequence), it continues to move backwards over the head restraint (3). Properly adjusted head restraints (bottom sequence) protect your neck by keeping your head and body aligned throughout the collision (4).


Picture courtesy of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety 
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What types of head restraints are available?

  • Reactive Head Restraint: A head restraint that automatically moves up and forward during the crash, activated by the weight of the occupant in the seat.
  • Pro-Active Head Restraint: A head restraint that automatically moves up and forward at the start of the crash, activated by crash sensors on the bumper or within the car.
  • Reactive Seat: An entire seat and head restraint that absorbs the energy of a rear end crash.
  • Passive Seat: A seat that uses passive foam technology to absorb the energy of the crash and allows the occupant to engage the head restraint without neck distortion.
  • Traditional Seat: A traditional fixed or adjustable head restraint that has no specific anti-whiplash technology.

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Where can I find out how my car’s head restraints rate?

The Whiplash Prevention Campaign has made it easy for you to find the head rest rating for any car that has been tested by IIHS. So if you are looking to buy a new car or want to see what the rating is for your current car, use our search feature.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety provides ratings for headrestraints and the research behind those ratings. Find the section for Rear crash protection/head restraint ratings and choose your make of car from the dropdown list. You can also check the rating for other important safety features for your vehicle.

The Motor Insurance Repair Research Centre also provides ratings for many 2008 makes/models in their comprehensive brochure.
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Do newer vehicles have better head restraints than older ones?

Yes. Head restraints have improved over time so that a newer vehicle is more likely to have a better head restraint than an older one. In 1995 only 3 percent of measured head restraints received good geometric ratings from the Institute, compared with 51 percent in 2005. The number of poor restraints decreased from 82 percent in 1995 to only 6 percent in 2005. 
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