The pain from a whiplash injury can take over someone’s life. A whiplash injury comes on following acute trauma to the body and may cause chronic pain for many years. The whole body is caught off guard, and the sudden impact of an accident leads to tears in the muscle tissue. Massage therapy can make a difference in treating the immediate symptoms and shortening the duration of a whiplash injury. In some cases, massage therapy can even prevent the onset of chronic pain. Early massage intervention is best to help relieve both the physical and emotional pain of whiplash.
What Is whiplash?
Whiplash is a traumatic injury that significantly impacts the central nervous system. Car accidents are the most frequent cause of whiplash. About 20% of all victims of car accidents experience whiplash. During a car accident, there is often a high intensity jerking motion. The sudden acceleration and then deceleration movement causes the body to whip sharply forward, backward and sideways, and the impact to the body can be devastating.
Whiplash may also occur during contact or high-speed sports. For example, if an athlete falls down a ski slope or is thrown off of a bike and lands on their face, head, or neck, they can end up experiencing extensive soft tissue damage. The whole body hurts.
Whiplash injuries can be mild, moderate or severe. The spine and surrounding muscles, tendons, and ligaments can all suffer damage.
15 Physical Symptoms of Whiplash
Whiplash most frequently causes excruciating pain in the head, neck, and jaw. Doctors often call this injury hyperextension of the neck. However, there are a myriad of physical symptoms that are connected with whiplash trauma.
- Posterior body pain
- Headaches caused by neck pain
- Shoulder pain
- Numbness in neck, shoulders, jaw, or fingers
- Facial and jaw pain
- Postural changes (i.e. forward cervical spine/head)
- Mid and low back pain
- Unable to perform daily activities
- Memory loss
- Ringing in the ears
- Blurred vision
- Difficulty swallowing
6 Emotional Symptoms of Whiplash
In addition to the physical symptoms of whiplash, there are also very serious emotional symptoms.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Social isolation
Massage for Whiplash
Massage therapy is becoming a common treatment for whiplash symptoms. When a massage client is ready for massage therapy to help them recover and heal from the accident, it is vital to be prepared to consider the state of their body and mind, and all of the potential symptoms. Set up the appointment as soon as possible, complete a thorough health intake, and formulate a plan of care together. Typically, whiplash clients benefit from several sessions close together in the first few months following the accident and then regular therapeutic massage (1-2x/month) throughout their life for health maintenance.
Whiplash impacts the body similarly to other forms of trauma. Immediately following the accident, victims may feel little or no pain. The body becomes numb in response to the shock as a way of “protecting” it from the true expression of the disturbance to the body. Slowly, within hours, days and weeks – stiffness and pain develop. If you have the opportunity to work with a client during the acute phase, offer healing energy work. Subtle energy work, along with conversation with a client who was just in an accident, can help them to release some of the trauma right from the beginning.
The benefits of relaxation massage are far reaching. General massage of the whole body will relax the muscles, help control the pain and reduce muscle spasms following the accident. According to Bentley, “massage increases the amount of oxygen that reaches the healing tissues and opens those tissues so they can receive oxygen and nutrients, thus speeding the healing process.” Don’t underestimate the power of unwinding the nervous system. The sooner we can offer therapeutic support, the more long-term benefits of improved range of motion and stabilization of the neck.
Next, consider working with the deeper tissues. The trauma to the body will likely cause micro-tearing in the soft tissues. The tears in the tissues will begin to form scar tissue for healing and protection. The scar tissue will form everywhere there is a tear or abrasion on the fascia, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. It will form in mixed up layers between bones, amidst joints, and anywhere the body has damage.
Work with the scar tissue using cross-fiber friction, myofascial release, cranial sacral therapy, and/or trigger point therapy:
- Cross-fiber friction massage, where we work across the fibers of the muscles and use stretching modalities, realigns the mixed up fibers and break of the adhesions to help release the tightened tissues.
- Myofascial release techniques with stretching will deeply warm and soften the tissues to provide healing and repair.
- Similarly, cranial sacral work will gently release restrictions along the spine and support the entire nervous system in recovery. Cranial sacral work is gentle, but works very deeply into the body systems.
- Trigger point therapy addresses the hyperirritable points/knots in the muscle tissue. These painful points restrict range of motion and refer pain in a predictable manner. Therapists can apply direct pressure to the trigger points, thus releasing the knot, the discomfort and improving range of motion in the area.
By reducing the adhesions and trigger points with these bodywork modalities, you can help your client regain movement and flexibility. Most importantly they’ll experience less pain, and they can continue to heal well.
5 More Considerations
- Client who suffer from whiplash may have concussions, other spinal cord injuries, or broken bones. Ensure they are receiving the best possible medical care before providing massage therapy.
- There is often delayed onset of muscle soreness for whiplash trauma clients. Begin your work with them slowly and gently until you understand the full extent of their injuries.
- It is best to work with clients as soon after the accident as possible. Begin with subtle energy work and move into deep tissue modalities later. All of the bodywork will be beneficial for the client throughout their journey of recovery.
- Heat or cold application can be used as needed. Your client should pick the modality that feels best for them and their injuries.
- Current research shows that mobility of the neck is important for whiplash recovery. Whiplash collars are best used for short periods of time for temporary support and protection. However, they are not necessary all the time. Advise your clients of simple, gentle stretches they can do to help improve their range of motion. Stretches can be performed lying on a pillow for extra support.
Simply hearing the term whiplash potentially conjures up thoughts and feelings of pain and sadness. Whiplash victims experience trauma to both the body and mind. However, they don’t need to suffer. Massage therapy is successful at helping these victims heal and recover.