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Whiplash: Can It Be Prevented?

Whiplash, also called cervical acceleration-deceleration disorder (CAD), often occurs as a result of automobile collisions. So, the question is raised, “…can it be prevented?” To answer this question, we must first consider the obvious facts about minimizing your distractions when you drive: intoxication; engaged conversation (especially if you’re trying to make eye contact); talking on your cell phone (or worse, texting while driving – equal to 3 mixed drinks); messing with the radio, GPS, or other “gadgets” in the car; eating while driving; putting on make-up; shaving; and yes, even reading a book while driving! If you’re getting tired, pull over for a “power nap.” Even a 15 to 20-minute “shut eye” session can really help. But these things are obvious (and WELL DOCUMENTED)! What other factors, like features in cars, can minimize or possibly prevent injury in the event of a crash?

The headrest is a very most important feature in the vehicle for preventing or at least reducing the degree of injury in a crash. Unfortunately, most people do not bother setting the headrest at the correct height, as it’s usually set too low. When set too low, the head can slide over the top of the headrest which can actually result in greater injury as it acts like a fulcrum allowing the head to hyperextend over the headrest. It can also make the injuries associated with whiplash much worse. The proper height of the headrest should be no lower than the top of the ear level but in a lot of cases, the top third of the head may be a better choice, especially if the headrest is small in size or if the seat is reclined. The angle of the seatback is important with reference to headrests because when the seatback is reclined, there is a certain amount of “ramping” that occurs in rear-end collisions. This is because when the seat is reclined back, the seatback can act literally like a ramp and your whole body can slide up the ramp/seatback and your head can end up over the top of headrest. Therefore, keep the seatback as vertical as you can tolerate. The degree of “spring” or bounce of the seat back also affects the speed or acceleration of the rebound that occurs in a crash but unfortunately, the seat’s “springiness” can’t really be changed.

Seat belts and airbags are a great pair of safety features as they work together to reduce the chances of a serious injury, as well as whiplash. The seatbelt’s job is to stabilize the trunk of the body and prevent the occupant from being ejected from the vehicle while the airbag protects the chest, neck, and head from hitting the steering wheel or windshield. Seatbelts arrived on the scene in the 1970s, shoulder restraints shortly thereafter, and airbags in 1985. An eight-year study by the University of Pittsburgh reported on over 7,000 spine injured patients and found a significant reduction of spine-related injuries when both seatbelts and airbags were utilized. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration advises at least a ten-inch (~25 cm) distance between the steering wheel and the breastbone in order to avoid airbag injuries, which reportedly occur within the first 2-3 inches (~5-7 cm) of the airbag.

The “take home” message here is when you combine: 1. Staying alert by avoiding all the many distractions that can lure your eyes off the road; 2. Slowing down when you see or sense trouble; and 3. Making sure your seatbelt is fastened (and those of your passengers, as well) and your airbag still works, you can be quite confident you are doing your part in preventing injury (including whiplash) for both yourself and potentially others!


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