Whiplash pain can be much different from other types of injuries. When a car accident is severe, the pain will come on right away. If the injury produces a mild or moderate sprain, sometimes it takes a few days for the pain and inflammation to reach its maximum extent. Sometimes it is stiffness that is the prominent symptom and the patient notices this in the first few weeks after the accident. A delay in pain is often seen in low speed collisions where typically there is very less damage to the vehicles.
There are a lot of factors that determine the extent of injury following a low speed whiplash. One of these is the neck posture prior to impact. Was the head turned? This can occur if the patient was looking at the rear view mirror during the collision. Low speed collisions can occur in parking lots. If the patient was turned to see if a space was clear, this can make a simple trauma result in a significant injury.
Besides the position of the patient prior to the collision, the speed and amount of vehicle damage are sometimes good criteria for the severity of the trauma. However, it may not be in many cases because of crumple zones. Cars are built with crumple zones these days. These areas are crushed during the collision and absorb the energy of impact. In some low speed collisions, there is less crumple and more of the force is transmitted to the occupants. This is just one reason why vehicle damage won’t always equate with soft tissue damage.
Another factor in whiplash is whether the head-rest was properly positioned. A proper headrest should be close to the back of the head and its high point slightly above the top of the head. The reason for the high position is that in a rear-end collision, the person who is being hit will rise slightly with impact. If the headrest is too low, then the neck will bend around it like a fulcrum causing even more injury. The same thing happens if the seat is reclined too far and the head whips backwards before hitting the headrest.
Because symptoms can come on slowly and minor vehicle damage is not a good indicator of injury, a thorough examination is required. It is important to be checked by a competent healthcare provider after any motor vehicle collision.