The Myths About Whiplash

You say you haven’t been the same since you had your little crash.

But you might feel better if they gave you some cash.

The more I think about it, old Billy was right. Let’s kill all the lawyers, kill ‘em tonight”

Soft tissue, or whiplash injuries from motor vehicle accidents, are misunderstood by the public and many in the medical community. Much of this misinformation leads back to insurance companies who claim that whiplash is fake. To prove their point, they’ve funded various “studies” from junk science. The intention, of course, is to mislead or bias the medical community. Indeed, many doctors have been duped into believing that when the lawsuit is settled, the pain and symptoms disappear. Legitimate studies have debunked this perception and provided no evidence for this. In fact, after settlement, only 39% of patients improved, 55% showed no change and 5% even got worse.

Whiplash is the most common motor vehicle-related injury treated in North American hospital emergency departments. Whiplash injuries are most often thought to occur in rear-end collisions, but several European studies have found the major incidence of whiplash were accounted for by other than rear-end collisions. However, it is well established that rear-end accidents result in more longstanding neck injuries than front-end or side-on collisions.

Typical rear-end accidents generate substantial acceleration forces at the head and neck so quickly that the neck is unable to compensate. The struck vehicle (or target) is accelerated forward. The seatback first contacts the lower back pelvic region and causes the seatback to be deflected backwards and away from the upper torso. The upper torso is sent into an upward motion but the head remains stationary. Since the head remains stationary as the torso moves upward, there is compression of the cervical spine. As the cervical spine is compressed from below, it goes from being straight to forming an “S” shape, extending the lower cervical spine while flexing the upper cervical spine. This creates an abnormal rotation of the C spine exposing the C5-6 facet joint to potential injury.

The flexion-extension movement pulls and strains the muscles, ligaments and tendons of the neck and upper body.  These soft tissue injuries often take much longer to heal than broken bones. In some cases, the pain and other symptoms can be chronic and life-long.

Whiplash symptoms after a car accident can appear immediately or may be delayed by a day or even longer. These include neck, shoulder and back pain, headaches, dizziness, numbness, vertigo, swelling, stiffness, tenderness along the back of the neck and shoulders, muscle spasms, headaches, difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, soreness of the jaw and in more severe cases, blurred vision, ear ringing, nerve irritation and chronic pain.

A severe whipping motion of the head during a car accident can also cause mild and in some cases, severe brain injury. Unlike bruises, lacerations, broken bones or spinal injury, brain injury can often go undiagnosed. This is because brain injury can occur without any obvious signs of a concussion or even hitting the head. The brain can sustain injury when the whipping motion of the head thrusts the brain against the inside wall of the skull. A skilful personal injury lawyer, who has experience in dealing with traumatic brain injuries, can sometimes be the first to recognize brain injury symptoms.

The use of seatbelts and airbags can help to minimize the trauma of whiplash, but these things can never prevent or alleviate bodily injury during a motor vehicle accident. Proper adjustment of the seat headrest is also important in reducing injury to the neck.

The speed of the cars involved in an accident may have little bearing on the amount or type of harm that is inflicted. Similarly, the amount of physical damage caused to the vehicle may not relate to the severity of the injuries. Relatively low speeds have been known to have caused spinal injury, brain injury, whiplash, soft tissue and neck injuries to the vehicle’s occupants, even while wearing seat belts.

If you have been hurt in a motor vehicle accident, it is imperative that you see a doctor as soon as possible and be sure to describe all your symptoms and concerns. If possible start at the top of you head and work your way down to describe how you feel. Also, seek legal advice from a good personal injury lawyer as soon as practical. The initial consultation should be free of charge. Hopefully you will receive guidance as to your legal rights and benefits available to you.   If you have retained a good personal injury lawyer, he/she should be able to set up visits to various specialists as warranted. If you are the victim of a car or motorcycle accident, you should not be out of pocket due to your medical treatment. Payment for all of these things should be covered by ICBC. A good litigation lawyer should assist you through-out your claim so that your focus can be on your well-being and recovery.


[i] Get Over It; Artist: Eagles; Album: Hell Freezes Over; Song Writer: Glenn Frey, Don Henley.

[ii] Teasell, Robert W. MD FRCPC, Whiplash Injuries; Paper presented to the Essential Soft Tissue Conference, 2009.

[iii] Martin et al; 2008.

[iv] Deans 1986, Nygren 1984.