Whiplash injuries are very common, but maybe not well understood. They are also very treatable by massage therapy, but since people don’t know massage can help, they don’t always get appropriate care for their neck and shoulder injuries.
What is whiplash?
Whiplash is a colourful term for the type of motion that causes a not-so-nice injury to the neck and upper body. In other words, it’s usually fast motion of the spine into the end range then back in the opposite direction – where the spine goes through a rapid acceleration and deceleration almost like the cord in a bungee jump – causing strain to the neck muscles and surrounding tissues. Not only muscles but also bones, ligaments, nerves, and fascia can be affected by a whiplash injury.
What causes whiplash injuries?
Whiplash injuries are most commonly caused by car accidents, and usually by rear-end impact. They can also be caused by things like slips, falls, and sports accidents. Any time the body is moving in one direction and another object meets it from the opposite direction, the impact will cause a forceful back-and-forth whipping of the spine and neck. As Newton’s Third Law says, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction!
Whiplash injuries can show up right away, or it may take several days for a person to start feeling the pain of the impact trauma.
“Whiplash Associated Disorders” (WAD) is the term used to describe the collection of impairments or injuries a person has after the whiplash motion has occurred. For example:
- Neck pain (most common)
- Headaches (second most common)
- Muscle spasms
- Trouble with vision
- Low back, tailbone, even arm, leg, and hand and foot pain
- Nausea, trouble swallowing
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Trouble sleeping due to pain
- Trouble concentrating or with memory
Grades of WAD
Most whiplash injuries are fairly minor, but some are quite severe. There are four grades of whiplash, ranging from stiffness and tenderness to neurological issues and fractures.
Clearly your massage therapist will not be treating you if you’ve had a neck fracture, as this is a serious injury that requires a doctor’s care. And we will not directly treat neurological injuries, although we can do a lot to help your body heal.
If you have had a car accident, a fall, or another impact trauma, it’s wise to visit your doctor to rule out the most severe effects and to determine what grade of whiplash injury you have.
What to do right after a whiplash incident
As I mentioned before, sometimes people feel fine until a few days after an accident, so if you have a whiplash-type incident, even if you don’t feel any pain right away, it’s still best to see your doctor to confirm whether there is a whiplash injury, what grade, and whether you have any other injuries.
Also, get back and get moving! Years ago, the medical profession thought we should rest after a whiplash injury. That’s why we’ve all seen pictures of people wearing a cervical collar. But rest makes us rusty! In most cases, only a day or two of rest is needed, if any. Doctors now realize that resting too long may prolong pain because injured muscles can get weak and stiff if we don’t use them. Now, I’m not saying to go climb a mountain or run a half marathon – just try returning gently to whatever is normal activity for you, to help keep your tissues healthy and flexible. Your RMT can guide you if you are having trouble doing this.
Assessment by RMT
Even after your doctor has examined you and categorized your whiplash injury, when you come for massage you and your therapist will still do an assessment. Why? First, to make sure we understand the biomechanics of your injury (basically, what happened and how your body reacted). Second, so we can clarify what tissues were affected, the areas that are most sensitive to pressure, your level of mobility, and so on. Finally, to confirm that the treatment will be safe and effective for you.
Massage treatment for WAD
Massage therapy can be an amazing tool to decrease the effects of WAD and your time spent recovering. Your RMT can help the muscles return to their normal tone (decreasing your pain) and return normal balance between opposing muscles.
Using low-grade joint mobilizations to move synovial fluid, we lubricate joints to decrease pain and increase pain-free movement. Using lymph drainage we decrease excess swelling and increase blood flow into muscles or tissues that may have been restricted by injury.
Myofascial release can free up restricted fascia, letting all the structures of your neck, shoulders, and back move more easily. Trigger point therapy and deep tissue massage will eventually also be appropriate, to bring even more blood flow, balance, and health to all the muscle groups and soft tissue.
Some of the muscles we will massage may be ones you’ve never had massaged before: many muscles in the front of the neck get injured in whiplash. Massaging to make sure they are healthy lets your symptoms clear up as soon as possible. When these anterior neck muscles don’t get treated, problems can last for years after the initial injury.
Massage can also decrease anxiety and stress after an injury, activating your “rest and digest” nervous system and getting you out of the “fight or flight” zone.
Homecare after a whiplash injury
Along with explaining to you what’s going on in your individual body, your therapist will give you self-care tools for your particular situation – usually stretching, strength exercises, hydrotherapy (temperature therapy) such as cold or hot packs or a hot bath with Epsom salts, postural information, and suggestions to maintain mobility and return to normal activity. We may also refer you to another health care professional we think you could benefit from.
I hope you have a better idea of what whiplash injuries are, and what to do if you ever think you’ve had a whiplash injury. Your RMT will be happy to answer any questions you might have about the right way to treat your neck and shoulder injuries of all kinds.
Photo credits: All photos are original to Body Poets or are public domain images from Wikimedia Commons