Researchers call for a greater focus on the physical impact of whiplash injuries

Researchers from the Kolling Institute have led an international study investigating why some people spontaneously recover from whiplash following a motor vehicle collision, while others don’t. Their work has uncovered new evidence indicating it may relate to the health of muscles and stress.

More than 140 people were recruited to the longitudinal study, which involved research teams from the United States, Canada, and Australia.

The study ran for more than five years, with participants undergoing a series of ultra-high resolution MRIs of the spine and neck.

Researchers analysed pain, psychological distress, as well as physiological measurements of muscle fat in the neck.

Following the extensive analysis, researchers found higher neck muscle fat infiltration and distress may be a risk factor for whiplash related injury, although it was unclear whether this was a pre-existing condition or the result of the trauma.

Lead researcher Professor Jim Elliott, Academic Director of the Kolling Institute said it’s known that higher levels of stress can have a negative effect on overall health and wellbeing, but in particular, the health and functioning of our skeletal muscles.

“This study provided more evidence that those reporting higher levels of post-traumatic distress had higher levels of muscle fat infiltration,” he said.

“Future work needs to determine if these conditions were present before the injury, and whether pre-traumatic life stress is accompanied by poor muscle health and function.”

Professor Elliott said the study represented an important body of work with 1.3 million Australians alone experiencing chronic whiplash associated disorder.

“We know that half of those who experience whiplash during a collision recover rapidly, while the other half do not recover and 20 per cent have severe ongoing pain and disability.

“This causes a significant personal toll, as well as an economic burden of close to a billion dollars a year just in Australia.

“Research to date has generally focused on secondary prevention rather than primary prevention of whiplash associated disorder.

“Nearly all the high quality trials over the last 25 years have tested interventions to reduce adverse outcomes, yet these trials have done little to reduce the burden of the disorder.

“In fact, neck pain, the most common symptom of chronic whiplash remains the fourth leading cause of Years Lived with Disability, a ranking which has not changed in over 30 years.

“There is a clear need for innovation in diagnosis and prognosis, as well as effective strategies to mitigate the risks for the large number of people living with the chronic disorder.

“Currently, the focus is on the consequences of a collision, such as post-traumatic psychological distress and disability. Following our research, we would like to see greater attention directed to the biological and biomechanical mechanisms involved in the disorder.

“We believe this broader approach could improve the prediction of the clinical course and therefore the management of the condition.

“It could offer valuable information and treatment options for the 25 per cent of people who suffer a whiplash injury and then transition from acute to chronic pain and disability.”

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health in the USA. It has been published in the prestigious Spine Journal.