Whiplash is a specific kind of traumatic injury that harms the muscles and joints of the neck; while it can break a bone, such a fracture is a rare event. The tissues most injured in a whiplash collision are the neck muscles and joints of the neck: the places where bone meets bone.
Muscles cross over the joints, contracting in order to move the bones in relationship to each other. Much like a ligament, if a muscle is overextended because the joint is forced to move beyond a muscle’s full extension, the muscle becomes injured. An injured muscle is called a ‘strain.’ It’s quite normal for a single injury to cause both a sprain and a strain in the ligament and muscle respectively.
Quite often, “landmine knots” called trigger points form in the front and back neck muscles, causing severe aches and pains, as well as referred pain into the eyes and head.
Joints are held together with connective tissues called ligaments. Ligaments hold the bones together, limiting the movement of each joint. When the joint is forced to move beyond the limits that the ligaments set, the ligaments are injured, resulting in a sprain. You may recognize this from the term ‘sprained ankle.’
Unlike most joints, wherein a muscle stretches across a single joint because it has only a single pair of bones within its range, the spine is a complex collection of small bones and muscles that stretch over many of the joints between those small bones.
Although whiplash injury can break (fracture) a bone, fractures from whiplash trauma are quite rare.
Notice, for example, that your elbow only moves in one direction. The neck, meanwhile, can turn left and right, tilt up and down, slide forwards and backwards, slide side to side, and even extend and contract a little bit. It’s the most flexible part of the body. The neck also holds up the dead weight that is the massive human skull and the brain it contains. All that, and the neck muscles and bones also protect the spinal cord that connects our brain to the rest of our body, allowing us to feel sensations and move.
This is all due to the incredibly powerful and well-engineered bones in our spine, called vertebrae. Each vertebrae has three individual joints rather than the one that most bones are allowed. The largest joint on each vertebrae is called the disc joint, because a disc of ligament-like tissue sits between it and the next vertebrae in the spine. The disc joints are the ‘shock absorbers’ of our bodies.
Then, each vertebrae has two joints at the back of the bone, called facet joints. The facet joints are where the muscles that control the movement of your neck and back are connected.
When you get whiplash, the muscles, disc and facet joints between your neck vertebrae get overextended in a forward-back direction. This results in several related conditions: ligament sprains, muscle strains, and in extreme cases, the discs between vertebrae can rupture or become herniated.