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Mechanism of Whiplash Injury

Mechanism of Whiplash Injury

Do you suffer from whiplash headaches or think you may suffer from this condition? Trauma or an accident resulting in a whiplash injury can lead to acute or persistent headaches that are very debilitating!

What are Whiplash Headaches?

Whiplash headaches are headaches or migraine that occur following a whiplash injury. There are two types of whiplash associated headaches.

Acute: less than 3 months following the whiplash injury

Chronic: persistent headaches lasting longer than 3 months post-trauma

Whiplash injuries most commonly occur following a motor vehicle accident where the driver experiences impact on the front, rear or side of the vehicle, but can also occur in high velocity sporting activities whereby there’s a rapid acceleration and deceleration of the head. This causes a transfer of energy into the neck resulting in damage or dysfunction in the muscles, ligaments, discs, and joints of the neck.  The extent or exact type of whiplash injury is what determines the severity of these headaches or migraines, as well as the location of the pain. The pain can be focal, located to one side of the head, or can be experienced on both sides of the head. Sufferers may also experience pain ongoing down the spine, shoulders, and arms.

In severe whiplash injuries whereby there is significant damage to the ligaments of the upper cervical spine, people may experience neck tongue syndrome. This is when there is numbness and tingling in one half of the tongue as well as the other normal headache symptoms. In these cases, the patient is often referred for imaging and specialist review.

Risk factors for developing headaches post-trauma:

  • Previous history of headache
  • Previous neck or head injury
  • Being female
  • Pre-existing psychiatric disorders


Why do Whiplash Injuries Cause Headaches?

We know that whiplash injuries in the cervical spine can result in big disruption and dysfunction of the structures in the upper neck.  Research suggests that this dysfunction results in a sensitized brainstem, also located behind the upper three cervical vertebrae of the neck. The brainstem and trigeminal cervical nucleus houses nerves that receive information from the head, the face and the neck. It is thought that when injury to the neck occurs and the brainstem is sensitised, this information becomes easily confused and the trigeminal nucleus perceives minor input as a threat. This results in pain signals being sent out, causing headaches and migraines.

Common types of headaches and migraines occurring after whiplash injury include chronic daily headaches, tension type headache, migraine, hormonal or menstrual-related migraines, cluster headaches, sinus headaches, or even a vertigo cervical headache. In fact, most headaches and migraines patients do report some form of neck injury in the past that can be related to their headache symptoms.

Treatment Options for Whiplash Headache Conditions

The go-to treatment options after some sort of trauma resulting in whiplash are often pain management via medication, potentially soft tissue massage, and postural correction. In severe cases, people may be referred straight away to see a surgeon. For some, seeing a physiotherapist is also recommended but people do not always follow this path.

There is a strong recommendation to see a headache clinician, who has an in-depth understanding of conditions like this. A headache clinician is able to assess your upper cervical spine and determine if your brainstem is contributing to your pain. From here, successful conservative management will involve treating the cervical spine and desensitising the brain stem in a matter of weeks. This is most commonly a medication free approach that will have the effect of either completely eliminating the headaches and migraines, or significantly reducing the intensity and frequency of them!

Watch the video below to hear Bertrand, our director, explain whiplash headache injuries!
Please contact us on 1800 432 322 or email [email protected] to book an appointment for you headaches today!
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Concussion, Whiplash & Migraine Related Injuries

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