New Discovery Predicts Chronic Pain in Whiplash Patients

Although a lot of information about whiplash remains an ongoing investigation, special imaging has given researchers the ability to predict future chronic pain in victims earlier than ever.

Although a lot of information about whiplash remains an ongoing investigation, special imaging has given researchers the ability to predict future chronic pain in victims earlier than ever.

Lead Author James Elliott, PT, PhD, and his Northwestern University colleagues forecasted which patients would develop chronic pain, disability, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) just one to 2 weeks after the whiplash injury. The team used special MRI imaging to find potential changes in the neck by measuring the fat to water ratio in the muscles. The results revealed that unusual muscular changes took place in the chronic pain group and rapid atrophy was taking place due to the large amounts of fat infiltrating on the neck muscles.

“We believe this represents an injury that is more severe than what might be expected from a typical low-speed car crash,” Elliott said in a news release.

Most whiplash patients recover completely within a few months, however, about 25% suffer from long-term pain or disability for months or even years following the trauma, the authors noted.

Being able to predict which patients are going to suffer from a more serious condition after whiplash will allow for quicker and better treatments that will lead to more positive outcomes in the long run. While this new development is a step in the right direction, there are still challenges to overcome.

“If you’re a whiplash patient with ongoing chronic pain, but no objective imaging finds anything wrong, people are frequently informed that nothing is wrong with them,” Elliott said. “It’s been a huge problem.”

Whiplash patients exude different symptoms, however, they were all treated in the same way for a long time. Since 4 million Americans suffer from whiplash-associated disorders during motor vehicle collisions every year, the study noted, treating the condition in an individualized manner is important.

“These patients have shown to not respond well to traditional rehabilitation such as physical therapy,” Elliott said. “It appears that they may require a more concerted effort for pain management from their physician and help from a psychologist.”