Whiplash – or perhaps most accurately, “whiplash associated disorders” (WAD) – is a term that is applied to the MANY different types of injuries that can occur at the time of an automobile collision.
The cervical spine includes bony structures, ligaments (that hold bones tightly together), tendons (that attach muscles to bones), nerves (that allow us to feel and provides muscle strength), disks (that serve as shock absorbers between our vertebra), and other connective tissues that can be injured depending on MANY factors! The brain can also be injured (i.e., concussion) in a crash WITHOUT the head hitting anything! Individuals in car accidents can also experience seat belt-related injuries to the shoulder, chest, abdomen, mid-back, and/or low-back, as well as the extremities.
There are many factors that can increase your risk of injury including the size of the two vehicles (worse when a large vehicles strikes a smaller vehicle), the direction of the collision, the position of the head upon impact (worse if rotated), the size of the neck (females are at greater risk), the angle and springiness of the seat back, the position of the head rest (too low is common), and the amount of vehicular damage (or lack thereof).
The latter is the surprising part! You may have noticed when a racecar crashes, it’s made to literally break apart until the only remaining piece is the cage that holds the driver. The reason for this is when a crash occurs, the energy of the impact (or “G-force”) is absorbed by crushing metal or breaking away parts. If the vehicle is ‘built like a tank’ and no metal crushes or parts break off, the energy is transferred to the contents inside the vehicle – namely the driver and occupants!
Hence, the concept of “no vehicular damage means no injury” is actually quite the opposite! When low-speed collisions occur, there is no energy absorption by the crushing of metal or breaking away of parts. Hence, there’s a greater chance of injury at low speeds when little-to-no damage occurs to the target vehicle!