Whiplash- What Exactly Does it Mean?

by William Mattar | May 13th, 2016

As explained in a previous blog entry, the extent of property damage to a vehicle is not a reliable proxy for the severity of injury endured by a driver or passenger in that vehicle. The purpose of your car bumpers is to protect your car—not you.

Nevertheless, even where a motor vehicle collision is “low impact,” serious, life-changing injuries can result. “Whiplash” injuries to a motorist’s neck or back is among the most common type of injury resulting from nonfatal automobile accidents.

Importantly, the term “whiplash,” actually refers to the mechanism of injury—a sudden flexion and extension action to the cervical spine—and not a single pathology that can result from the collision, such as cervical strain or a herniated disc.

The National Institute of Health defines “whiplash” as “a soft tissue injury to the neck” that is “characterized by a collection of symptoms that occur following damage to the neck, usually because of sudden extension and flexion.”

In 1995 the Quebec Task Force, conducted by the professors at McGill University in Montreal, developed a classification system of whiplash associated disorders based primarily on the severity of signs and symptoms.

This five-tiered classification system separates the severity—or grade—of the individual’s disorder into one of five categories according to the type and severity of signs/symptoms observed shortly after the injury:

  • Grade 0: No neck pain, stiffness, or any physical signs are noticed
  • Grade 1: Neck complaints of pain, stiffness or tenderness only but no physical signs are noted by the examining physician.
  • Grade 2: Neck complaints and the examining physician finds decreased range of motion and point tenderness in the neck.
  • Grade 3: Neck complaints plus neurological signs such as decreased deep tendon reflexes, weakness and sensory deficits.
  • Grade 4: Neck complaints and fracture or dislocation, or injury to the spinal cord.

While the classification system continues to be used by medical practitioners to this day, it has been sharply criticized. One major criticism is that its application—based solely on an individual’s clinical presentation immediately following a trauma—is of limited predictive value as to that individual’s ultimate medical outcome.

For instance, one study tracked a series of 186 consecutive cases of individuals who endured whiplash injuries and were seen in the emergency room. The participants were then seen one year later, where, based on the “variable results,” it was determined that the classification system “could not predict persistent neck pain after a whiplash injury . . .”

In other words, the severity or permanency of whiplash-related injuries cannot be reliably predicted based on testing and examination conducted immediately after the source of trauma.

If you’ve endured whiplash in a motor vehicle accident, the New York motor vehicle accident lawyers at William Mattar Law Offices want to help. Give us a call anytime at (844) 444-4444 to speak with a member of our legal staff.