Can “Whiplash” Happen at Low Speeds?

man with whiplash pain holding his neck
man with whiplash pain

Whiplash” is commonly defined as “an acceleration–deceleration mechanism of energy transfer to the neck. It may result from rear-end or side-impact motor vehicle collisions, but can also occur during diving or other mishaps. The impact may result in bony or soft-tissue injuries (whiplash-injury), which in turn may lead to a variety of clinical manifestations called Whiplash-Associated Disorders”.1 Whereas most people believe whiplash only occurs at moderate to significant speeds during automobile collisions, experts agree that it most commonly occurs in low speed collision.2

When a person is rear-ended, the car is shoved forward. The seat back pushes on the back of the person ribcage. The head stays in place at first (or until it hits the headrest) leading to the head shifting or “translation” backward relative to the ribcage. It is during this stage of the “whiplash” that occurs in the first 50 milliseconds, when the most injury is thought to occur when rear-ended. This is referred to the “S-Shaped” configuration of the spine at this stage of the whiplash injury.

This S-shaped stage during whiplash causes certain ligaments in the spine to be over-stretched in various parts of the neck. This leads to many of the soft-tissue injuries seen after car crashes and can lead to symptoms including:

  • Neck pain
  • Headaches
  • Pain in the upper back or shoulders
  • Stiffness in the neck and upper back
  • Pain radiating into the shoulder, arm or hands
  • Numbness and tingling in the hands or fingers
  • Weakness in the arm or hand

These soft-tissue injuries are often not identifiable by MRI imaging. However, certain types of X-Rays can show that the ligaments are damaged because they allow “too much” motion in the joints of the neck when injured. This is referred to as “instability” of the joints. Once unstable, it is difficult for these ligaments to heal. Many people end up with permanent symptoms and degeneration of the joints years later.

To answer the question posed by the title of this blog article… the S-shaped configuration of the spine has been shown to occur at speeds as low as 5 mph.3 If you have been involved in a “low speed” car crash, you can schedule a free consultation with one of our whiplash doctors at one of our Modern Chiropractic Centers. Call (208) 629-1904 to schedule today!

1. Spitzer WO, Skovron ML, Salmi LR, et al. Scientific monograph of the Quebec Task Force on Whiplash Associated Disorders: redefining ‘whiplash’ and it’s management. Spine. 1995;20:8S–58S.
2. Yoganandan N, Pintar FA (eds). Frontiers in Whiplash Trauma: Clinical and Biomechanical. Amsterdam, The Netherlands, IOS Press, 2000:590.
3. Cormier, Joseph PhD; Gwin, Lisa DO; Reinhart, Lars MD; Wood, Rawson MD; Bain, Charles MD A Comprehensive Review of Low-Speed Rear Impact Volunteer Studies and a Comparison to Real-World Outcomes, SPINE: September 15, 2018 – Volume 43 – Issue 18 – p 1250-1

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