It is well known that the majority of cases of neck pain following whiplash injuries are sustained in road traffic accidents, where most often a vehicle is hit from behind, or receives impact from the side. One the one hand, the motor industry has taken action to lower the risk of whiplash to drivers, even those involved in hazardous motor sports. Yet on the other, in the case of many contact sports the incidence of serious neck injuries, including whiplash injury, is still very high.
Rugby, football, boxing and the martial arts – even snowboarding and gymnastics – participating in any of these sports carries the risk of sustaining a neck injury like whiplash.
A Closer Look at Whiplash
Whiplash broadly describes the fast backward-and-forward motion of your head, similar to the crack of a whip, resulting from an impact from the rear or the side. This could happen during a particularly fierce rugby tackle or, more commonly, following a rear-end collision in a car. The danger of whiplash comes from the damage your body can sustain from the hyperextension and hyperflexation of the spine outside of its normal limits when hit by such dramatic forces.
The Symptoms of Whiplash
A sufferer of whiplash can display a number of symptoms, the commonest of which is neck pain and stiffness. Among the other symptoms you might experience following whiplash are:
- neck swelling and tenderness
- reduced movement, or loss of movement, in the neck
- lower back pain
- pain, numbness, or pins and needles in the arms and hands (paraesthesia)
- muscle spasms
- difficulty swallowing
- blurred vision
- tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
(NHS Choices, 2009 ‘Symptoms of Whiplash’)
Complications and Recovery from Whiplash
The diagnosis and treatment of whiplash can be complex; in the case of sports injuries, further damage to other parts of the body can serve to compound the problem. Whiplash, along with many other sports injuries, is commonly treated with a course of physiotherapy, and this can very in duration according to the seriousness of the injury. As with all serious injuries, a player will be unable to continue playing during the rehabilitation period. Both an injury and a period of absence can jeopardise a player’s sporting career and, in the professional league, her source of income.
Whiplash injuries vary in severity and, as a result, so do recovery periods. According to the NHS, 60% of whiplash victims can recover in the first 4 weeks after the accident. However, in some cases, the symptoms of whiplash – particularly neck pain and stiffness in the neck, and associated back problems – can afflict the sufferer for some months after the injury, and occasionally that pain can become chronic (long term).
Prolonged pain affects daily tasks; it can severely compromise one’s working life and may cause anxiety and depression. Naturally, for a sports player, the implications of a debilitating illness are all the more disruptive.
Rugby and American Football
Neck, back and shoulder injuries sustained during high-energy contact sports like rugby and American football are often the result of whiplash. In the same way that a passenger experiences whiplash in a rear-end collision, where the spine endures hyperextension and hyperflexation outside of its normal range, if a rugby player is hit by two players simultaneously from the front and behind, the impact can cause the spine to undergo the same whiplash motion.
Boxing and the Martial Arts
As well as the impact of hard tackling in rugby and football, blows to the head can also occur in both sports. Boxing and the martial arts also carry high risks of suffering a blow to the head. As well as a high incidence of concussion in sports like these, whiplash is a growing concern – particularly in the context of the adequacy of its safety regulations.
In a paper published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2005, researchers found the risks of whiplash in mixed martial arts to be comparable to those involved in rear-end collisions. Yet they identified a worrying discrepancy in safety procedures to address these problems.
(Kochhar et. al., 2005, ‘Risk of cervical injuries…’ in BJSM)
Ice hockey players are particularly at risk from head injury, and within that, whiplash, due to the speeds at which they travel on ice. The fact that an ice hockey player can reach a speed of around 25mph means that collisions between players can be considered in the same range as a low-velocity car accident. If you consider the circumstances of a whiplash injury sustained by a rugby player who is tackled by two players both from the front and behind, it’s not hard to imagine the seriousness of the same collision at the high speed reached on ice.
Gymnastics and Cheerleading
When you think of the forces and speeds involved in sports like rugby and football, it’s surprising to know that, in fact, gymnasts have the highest injury rate of all athletes. Complex exercises and sudden manoeuvres often place vulnerable parts of the body like the cervical spine, the region of your spine where whiplash injury occurs, under the kind of stress to which the body is not accustomed.
Performing moves at a height is particularly hazardous for gymnasts and cheerleaders, because a fall might result in the head snapping violently back, causing a whiplash injury. The same can happen if your head hits the floor with such force that your neck snaps back. Whiplash constitutes a serious injury for any athlete, and is a very real danger.
Falls whilst snowboarding can easily result in whiplash, even at low velocities. This is because of the magnitude of the forces on the head and neck during an impact, where what’s known as G force has the effect of making your head weigh many times its usual weight.
During a low-speed collision of around 6mph, your head can be subject to 6 G’s of force, giving it the effect of weighing around 36kg. Given the magnitude of such forces, it’s no surprise that the delicate cervical spine is overstretched under the pressure, and whiplash hits.