The Reason Whiplash Symptoms Are Often Delayed


Whiplash after an accident may be serious and cause life-long pain, but the delayed nature of the condition often leaves individuals questioning whether their symptoms are actually related to the accident. An estimated 45% and 85% of whiplash patients will have some symptoms for up to five years after the accident, but understanding exactly why whiplash symptoms are delayed helps you better recognize the symptoms and get proper care to prevent possible lifelong pain. Let's explore the four interesting reasons that you rarely feel whiplash injuries immediately after an accident.

1. It's soft tissue damage

Whiplash is a neck injury that occurs when something like a car accident, football tackle, or roller coaster abruptly rocks the head back and forth. The faster you're going when you come to a complete stop the more pressure this movement puts on the soft tissues in your neck, but whiplash can occur at as few as 20 MPH in your neck. These tissues include:

Even if you saw a doctor right after your accident, they are unlikely to be able to diagnose whiplash because soft tissue damage can't be seen on X-rays. It can only be seen on CTs and MRIs, which you may not choose to have immediately after an accident.

Because soft tissue is affected instead of a broken femur, your body may not recognize the damage immediately and send pain signals to your brain.

2. Adrenaline blocks pain signals

The "fight or flight" hormone adrenaline temporarily blocks pain signals during a scary event so that pain doesn't distract when you need to protect yourself or get out of a dangerous situation. While adrenaline normally leaves the body within minutes of your finding safety, something akin to post-traumatic stress can keep the adrenaline in your system at a higher level for days or even weeks. If you find yourself tensing, having flashbacks, or experiencing nightmares after an accident, you're getting hit with rushes of adrenaline each time this occurs and it may block the pain. 

3. Your body may take some time to mount a response

Right after an injury occurs, your immune system sends specialized cells to the area to assess the damage and begin repairs. If adrenaline blocked the pain signals, then the immune response may also be delayed, but there's something else at work here.

Inflammation is part of your immune system toolkit for managing an injury, but if the immune system finds itself overwhelmed, then inflammation spreads through the area, causing more pain.

4. Damage may be subtle, but worsen over time

Some soft tissue damage simply takes a little time to show its full wrath. For example, if one of the soft discs in between your vertebrae ruptured during the whiplash-causing event, it begins leaking fluid around the spine and this fluid is highly irritating to the nerves in your neck and back. These nerves not only begin to hurt; they're also responsible for communicating messages between your brain and your arms and hands. Because of this, you may experience numbness or tingling in the hands several weeks after the accident. 

Some other delayed symptoms you may experience include:

With proper care, minor whiplash typically heals in six to nine months, but untreated whiplash may leave you with permanent chronic pain that may have you turning to potentially addictive painkillers to mask the pain.

How your doctor at Physical Medicine & Wellness treats whiplash

Treatment depends on the severity of whiplash and your pain levels. You may benefit from massage, therapeutic ultrasound, electrostimulation, and hot or cold therapy. The team at Physical Medicine & Wellness helps you rebuild neck strength, and restore range of motion, which reduces pain and allows for chiropractic adjustments to further the healing process. 

If you've been in an accident, and are now experiencing symptoms days or weeks later, don't delay any longer. Contact Physical Medicine & Wellness to schedule an appointment.

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