Whiplash is weird.
I was slowing down on the interstate approaching an accident, looking at the flames leaping from the car off on the left shoulder, wondering if the person was ok. When I looked forward to stop behind the person in front of me, a movement caught my eye in the rearview mirror. Headlights. Coming too fast. They weren’t going to stop in time. I braced myself for the inevitable.
I swear for a minute I thought I was flying. Suspended between the seat and the wheel. Car careening forward into the champagne color minivan in front of me. Hands braced at two and ten- defensive driving wasn’t helping me now.
The kid who hit me didn’t even have a license. Had borrowed his sister’s car. He was trying to hold it together but he knew he was in trouble. The man he ran me into was furious, yelling at the poor kid, finger in face, fear pumping him into action. I realized I could feel the asphalt on my feet and wondered what happened to my shoes.
The paramedics came, the man in front was complaining of severe neck pain, so they saw him first. I waited heart and mind racing. When they got to me I explained that I really wasn’t very sore, but I could tell that I might be tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. And, as it turned out, for a year afterwards.
A rear-ender does, in fact, lift you from your seat. It then drops you, compressing your spine. The chest is thrust forward which bends the neck backwards at up to three times its normal range. People often get whiplash after an auto accident. Of course, other types of accidents can lead to whiplash, too.
Whiplash can injure both muscles and joints in the neck. The pain can range from mild to severe and can affect different people in different ways. While symptoms go away fairly quickly for many people, it is not uncommon to have pain for years following the initial injury. Generally speaking, people who already had neck problems, people with weak neck muscles, people prone to nervousness, and people who have severe pain immediately following the incident go on to have more problems with pain. Contrary to popular belief, people who are relaxed and unaware of the pending accident have 15x worse outcomes than people who “see” the accident coming and brace themselves.
People also have longer term pain if they have certain mindsets. For example if the person catastrophizes, or thinks the worst; if they have a fear of movement; or if they have a high level of distress. PTSD also greatly exacerbates whiplash symptoms and has a strong correlation with chronic pain.
Massage can help ease pain from a recent or past whiplash injury. Since whiplash often involves deep muscles of the neck and sometimes joints, the therapist may massage muscles that don’t normally get massaged- for example in the front of the neck. A gentle approach to deep tissue work is often warranted in order not to tax already distressed tissue. The goal is to coax the tissue into healing, not force it.
Massage combined with physical therapy exercises and acupuncture helped me get back to better following my accident. So that I could get back to work, sports, and life in general. Helping people heal is why we work.