It’s estimated that up to 50% of whiplash associated disorders (WAD) patients will continue to experience long-term symptoms that interfere with their ability to carry out activities of daily living. According to experts, the economic burden associated with chronic WAD may exceed $42 billion each year. As such, many studies have sought to better understand whiplash, both from the mechanisms of injury to why some patients recover and some don’t.
With respect to chronic WAD resulting from a motor vehicle collision (the most common cause of whiplash), factors associated with the crash itself like speed, impact direction, awareness of collision, and airbag deployment do not appear to be significantly linked to an elevated risk for chronicity. On the other hand, researchers have found that higher self-rated pain and disability, fear of movement, catastrophizing, passing coping, and low expectations of recovery are indicative of failure to fully recover.
In a 2017 study, researchers reframed the trauma of a motor vehicle collision as an event that is both potentially injurious and distressing. When an acute injury occurs (in this case whiplash), there is often damage to various anatomical structures in the head, neck, and/or upper-mid back. Additionally, there is also a stress response associated with the overall incident (including subsequent events like a trip to the hospital and dealing with the insurance company and legal system) that can interfere with the healing process. When the combination of psychological vulnerabilities and neurobiological processes exceeds a person’s given threshold, their risk for chronic WAD rises.
This finding highlights the importance of treating the whole patient when it comes to WAD as it can affect both the body and mind. In addition to therapies delivered in the office to help the soft tissues in and around the neck to heal, doctors of chiropractic and other healthcare providers need to educate the patient and assure them that they will recover and encourage them to carry on their normal activities within pain tolerance. If necessary, the patient may need a referral to a mental healthcare professional to address psychological factors that can impede recovery.