By Michael Norman DC
Special to The Citizen
Is whiplash injury an epidemic?
Recent studies estimate there are 3,000,000 whiplash injuries every year in the United States. Approximately 150,000 Americans are disabled every year due to whiplash. Forty-two current studies of whiplash injuries when averaged together find a 38.7 percent chance of chronicity — meaning four out of 10 people affected by these injuries will have chronic pain for years to come such as chronic neck pain, chronic headaches, chronic back pain etc. When you consider the loss of work, decreased productivity, these studies reveal the true breadth of whiplash injuries.
How can you keep from becoming one of these statistics? At first glance it would seem that there is not a lot you can do to avoid being victim of a whiplash injury. Typically the sufferer of these injuries was in the “target” vehicle and unable to avoid the “bullet” vehicle crashing into them. A closer look at the kinematics — or study of the motions your head and spine go through during a whiplash — reveals there are actually two critical things that you can do to minimize your risk of sustaining this devastating injury.
The most important risk factor you can control is the amount of “backset” you have when sitting normally in your car seat. Backset is the distance from the back of your head to the front of your headrest. Simply, how far away your head is from your headrest. This distance should be no more than 4 inches. In fact, the closer your head is to the headrest the better. The reason for this critical risk factor goes back to the old laws of motion; an object at rest tends to stay at rest. In a rear-end crash your car and therefore car seat are accelerated forward. Your head, due to this law of motion, will initially not move or “stay at rest.” Basically your seat is thrown forward before your head moves creating damaging shearing forces on your spine. The smaller the backset distance, the smaller the shearing forces put into your spine. Have your spouse or a loved one check your “backset” and adjust your seat if necessary to bring your head within 4 inches of the headrest.
The second critical factor you can control is related to something called hyperextension. Hyperextension is the damaging force to your spine that takes place when your head is thrown back and up past its normal range. Fortunately you can reduce this damaging force by adjusting your headrest, up or down, to its proper height. The headrest should be positioned such that when you extend your head back against the headrest your head; not your neck, strikes the headset. From this position the headrest should then be slightly raised even further. The reason for this is that there is a ”ramping” effect that takes place as your back is forced into the seat back during a crash. This means that the spot on the headrest that your head is going to contact in a crash is actually higher than the one it contacts when you are just sitting in your car normally. When your head contacts the headrest properly the hyperextension force is minimized along with your chance of sustaining a whiplash injury.
These are two simple ways that you can have some measure of protection for yourself and your family against the painful and chronic effects of whiplash. If you’ve been fortunate thus far to avoid such an injury then perhaps a little prevention will keep you out of the ranks of this modern epidemic.
After 15 years of practice, it became evident to me that most of my patients with chronic pain could trace back years or even decades to the root cause of their suffering — a whiplash injury. Usually this was unknown to the sufferer because their condition was never properly diagnosed or treated.
In order to better serve my patients and the community, I set out to investigate this further. This lead me to a program offered by Dr. Arthur Croft, one of the world’s leading experts in whiplash traumatology. Recently I completed that training and am currently the only physician, of any type, in the Florida Keys with this extensive training in whiplash injuries and treatment.