Wiping out whiplash

Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg
August 7, 2008 3:40:15 PM PDT
If you've ever been in a rear-end collision, you may have experienced whiplash. There are over three million whiplash injuries in the U.S. every year -- painful conditions that often linger months or even years after the accident.

You may not be able to prevent another driver from crashing into you, but now researchers say you can help protect your neck.

"A car or truck was actually coming really fast behind me and there was nowhere I could go," Paula Winchel said.

More than ten years after her car was rear-ended, Winchel is still suffering.

"I have a lot of intense pain at times where I get headaches," she said.

Biomedical engineer doctor Brian Stemper has studied whiplash injuries for a decade. His goal -- find the best way to protect people behind the wheel.

"Originally, we thought that the whiplash was a hyperextension injury where the head rotates backward relative to the thorax, and that leads to a stretching in the soft tissues of the spine," said Stemper.

Now he says extensive crash tests and computer modeling show whiplash happens before the head rotates backward. A crash test showed the key is the relationship between the head and chest.

"The goal in whiplash is to minimize the relative motion between the head and your chest," Stemper said.

Research shows head rest position is crucial. Placed level with the top of your head, and two inches or less from the back of your head, it can prevent whiplash by limiting head movement.

"It's going to minimize the motions -- the relative motions between your head and your chest, which will cut down on the forces in the cervical spine in that rear impact," he said.

Researchers also found in a similar impact, women's cervical spines move more than men's, making women five to 10 percent more susceptible to whiplash.

"When they're coming up fast behind me, I definitely get nervous," Winchel said.

Despite her nerves, Paula's still on the road, but she's made the adjustments to protect herself in the driver's seat.

Doctor Stemper is working with automakers and says they're already taking steps to develop head restraints that help prevent whiplash injuries. But he says even if your car doesn't have that new equipment, taking a few minutes to adjust your headrest can keep you safer in a rear end collision.

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