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Cervical instability is one of the most serious whiplash injuries
As we have discussed in the past two blogs, whiplash refers to a quick and severe movement of your head and neck. That movement can cause injuries that range from mild to severe, and serious whiplash injuries can last for years.
Many whiplash injuries, such as neck strain, improve after a few weeks or months. If you have been injured in a car accident or other impact, you likely feel at least some pain or tension in your neck and shoulders. If you feel more intense pain or complications, however, you should seek medical care right away.
Cervical instability from whiplash
One of the more serious complications caused by whiplash is cervical spine instability.
A Colorado spine surgeon describes cervical instability this way:
“Instability in this region will make a patient feel as if the neck and upper spine are moving at a greater movement than what the bone, muscle and ligament can hold. The feeling is that a patient must be careful with head motion or a sharp pain and ‘catch’ will occur. The motion must be reproducible with the same motion at most times to be considered instability. That is, if it occurs only once a week, it would not be considered unstable but if it occurs 5-8 times a day, instability would be considered as a diagnosis. This dysfunction of the spinal cord often leads to other issues of the spine leading to a disruption of normal everyday activities.”
Symptoms of an instability in the cervical spine include:
- Sharp pain when you move your neck
- A sensation that your neck won’t be able to hold up your head
- Spasms in the muscles of the neck and upper back
- Balance issues and trouble with coordination
- Ringing in the ears
- Numbness or tingling in the fingers or arms
In the most serious cases of cervical instability, the skull or other brain regions can settle or place pressure on the brainstem.
Diagnosis and treatment
In an accident, the impact causes your lower neck bones to extend too far while your upper neck bones are pushed too far forward. That whiplash motion leads to pain and/or injuries.
According to MedicineNet, most whiplash injuries stem from damage to the soft tissues supporting the neck and spine:
“It is thought that this abnormal motion causes damage to the soft tissues that hold the cervical vertebrae together (ligaments, facet capsules, muscles).”
Your doctor may order an X-ray to diagnose your whiplash injury. If an X-ray doesn’t confirm the diagnosis, but your pain continues, he or she may recommend magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). According to MedicineNet, “MRI scans are better able to detect injuries to the soft tissues of the neck, especially instability, that may not been seen with normal x-rays of the neck.”
Treatment of whiplash injuries has evolved over the past several years, based on new evidence. You might think of those soft white collars when you hear the word whiplash, thanks to television shows and commercials of the past, but researchers have found that those collars can actually inhibit healing by reducing range of motion too much.
According to the Mayo Clinic:
“Soft foam cervical collars were once commonly used for whiplash injuries to hold the neck and head still. However, studies have shown that keeping the neck still for long periods of time can decrease muscle strength and interfere with recovery.”
Today, typical whiplash treatment includes:
- Physical therapy
- Pain medication
- Hot or cold compress treatments
- Injections of numbing agents
- Massage or acupuncture
- Chiropractic care
Severe cervical instability cases might require surgery. Additional treatments and therapies have also been used on some patients. Your doctor can recommend the right course of treatment in your case.
If you suspect you have a whiplash injury from a car accident, contact us for a free consultation on your case.