The Physics Behind a Whiplash Injury

Whiplash from Car Accident

Whiplash is the most common injury associated with a car accident. It typically happens when a person gets rear-ended but could be a result of any type of accident. But, although you’ve likely heard of whiplash, do you understand the physics behind a whiplash injury?

Many people assume that whiplash only occurs in severe accidents and if you are just bumped from behind at a stoplight, you have nothing to worry about. This simply is not the case. Whiplash can occur at surprisingly low speeds and cause an unexpected amount of damage.

What Happens When a Car Gets Rear-Ended?

Let’s start with a simple scenario. Someone is stopped at a stoplight on a city street. A car approaches behind them and slows down; however, because they are on their cell phone, they fail to stop completely in time. The two cars collide at approximately 15 miles per hour. Since the first car is at rest, presumably with the brakes on, it resists the impact. However, that resting car still absorbs 15 miles per hour worth of force.

So, what happens when your vehicle absorbs that amount of force?

When impact occurs, the seats of the first car jolt forward suddenly and with more force than you might expect. Of course, the seats aren’t the only things moving; the torsos of the driver and passengers also jolt forward. The heads of the driver and passengers, however, do not move with their bodies at the same speed. This is what causes the whiplash action.

You may not have known it, but the headrests in your car are not just for comfort; they’re another of your vehicle’s safety features. The headrest lessens the severity of the impact.

The Movement of the Spine in a Rear-End Collision

Whiplash Demonstration

Normally, the head initiates most spinal movement. The movements of the neck in the cervical spine primarily consist of rotating and looking up and down. When a car gets rear-ended, however, your body moves beneath the spine rather than the head initiating the action. This unnatural movement causes an abnormally high amount of strain to be put on the spine, causing whiplash injury.

This abnormal movement can cause more damage than you might expect. Common damage includes neck stiffness and soreness, but also nerve pain. And, depending on the amount of damage done, you may feel pain immediately, or it could be days or months before the effects of the impact set in. The only way to immediately know the amount of damage done to your body is to have a doctor or chiropractor examine you. Doctors can give a good initial estimate of the damage, but consider seeing a chiropractor who specializes in whiplash injury.

What to Do If You Are in a Car Accident

Most people know the steps you should take if you are involved in a car accident. Check the damage done to people and the cars, call the police, exchange information, and file an insurance claim. However, many people forget that not all injuries are noticeable at first glance. Many people think they are okay while their body is in shock, shielding them from any awareness that they may have suffered bodily damage. Once this shock effect wears away, however, the pain will eventually set in. Getting checked out immediately can make whiplash injuries easier to connect to the car accident. This is especially important in the event of an insurance claim. Often, when whiplash injuries are left undiagnosed, insurers resist covering the injury once symptoms finally appear. It is important to understand the physics of whiplash injury and know how to take proper care if it happens to you.

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