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The Four Phases of Whiplash

Understanding Whiplash in Lakewood, Colorado

Whiplash is typically associated with car accidents. However, whiplash can occur as a result of virtually any activity – from riding roller coasters to playing sports. Some people get whiplash after a fall, for example.

When you experience whiplash, your body goes through an extremely quick and violent acceleration and deceleration process. A whiplash injury will progress through four specific phases. These phases occur in seconds. Each phase involves a different force acting on your body, with each forcing adding a new phase to your injury, causing different types of damage to your vertebrae, nerves, discs, muscles, and ligaments in your back, upper neck, and other parts of the body.

For the purposes of this explanation, we’ll use whiplash experienced during a car accident:

Phase 1)

A separate force – like another vehicle or a solid object – impacts your vehicle. Your car is immediately moved at great speed from underneath you. Your mid-back is flattened against the back of the seat, creating an upward force targeting your cervical spine (your neck). This force compresses your discs and joints. The car’s momentum will continue pushing your lower back forward. Your head, however, has not yet caught up – your head will fly backward, whipping violently at your neck. This is why a well-adjusted head restraint is so important. It minimizes the backward travel of your head. Unfortunately, the majority of spinal damage occurs before your head hits the restraint, although a good restraint still reduces injury by 10% to 20%.

Phase 2)

Your torso reaches its peak acceleration, often going up to twice as fast as the vehicle. However, your head is still moving backwards. This creates an abnormal S-curve in your cervical spine. Your seat back springs forward, increasing the speed of your torso even further. The forward-moving seat and backward-moving head then meet in one of the most destructive moments of the whiplash sequence, with the neck bearing the majority of the movement. A significant amount of bone, joint, nerve, and disc damage occurs at this moment.

Phase 3)

Your torso is beginning to settle back down into your seat. Both your head and your neck, however, are still accelerating forward at their peak speed. Your vehicle is typically slowing down at this moment because your foot is on the brake (after temporarily lifting away from the pedal during the moment of impact). This sudden braking increases the flexion injury of your neck. At this point, your forward movement is restricted by your seatbelt.

Phase 4)

The final phase is the most damaging part of the entire whiplash sequence. The seatbelt stops your torso, but your head continues to move forward. Your neck will bend violently under this force, straining muscles and ligaments, tearing fibers in your spinal discs, and forcing vertebrae out of position. Your spinal cord and nerve roots are stretched and damaged. Your brain hits your skull, which can potentially cause mild to moderate brain injury through bleeding, bruising, and swelling. If you’re not wearing a seatbelt, then your head is free to move forward and strike the steering wheel, dashboard, or windshield of your vehicle, all of which can cause even more traumatic brain injuries.

Each phase lasts a fraction of a second. By the end of the sequence, you can have significant and long-lasting whiplash damage.

If you’ve experienced whiplash injury from a car accident or any other type of trauma, schedule a free, no obligations consultation with Lakewood’s leading chiropractor, Renew Chiropractic, at 720-493-5885.