While the literature published on the topic of whiplash-associated disorders (WAD) is voluminous, it’s still somewhat of a mystery why some individuals can walk away from a motor vehicle collision without injury and others can experience chronic, persistent, and disabling symptoms. One area in which researchers have focused their efforts in recent years is on the extent that nerve injury occurs during a whiplash event, and when it occurs, whether it’s being detected early in the course of treatment.
Traditionally, WAD patients are classified the following way: WAD I—pain, stiffness, or tenderness of the neck as the only complaint with no physical exam findings (full range of motion and no muscle guarding or tenderness on examination); WAD II—pain, stiffness, or tenderness of the neck with soft tissue injury signs, loss of range of motion (ROM), and/or point tenderness of the neck (e.g., a sprain/strain neck injury); WAD III—pain, stiffness, or tenderness of the neck along with neurological signs sensory deficits, motor weakness, and/or decreased or absent deep tendon reflexes; WAD IV—pain, stiffness, or tenderness of the neck along with dislocation or fracture with or without spinal cord injury.
As you can expect, treatment guidelines can vary based on how WAD is graded. A systematic review of 54 studies that included more than 390,000 WAD patients and 900 individuals without a history of WAD (who served as controls) concluded that this classification system may need updating. The researchers found that about a third of WAD II patients—the most common WAD level—showed signs of neuropathic pain, though they had not been diagnosed as such.
The authors stress the importance of a careful INITIAL clinical examination as the presence of nerve injury/pathology may alter the treatment recommendations given to the acute WAD patient such as a wait-and-watch method that is commonly recommended after the initial examination. Researchers point out that compared to other chronic pain conditions, people with neuropathic pain experience greater interference with function and activity tolerance as well as worse quality of life and emotional wellbeing assessments—each of which is associated with an increased risk for chronicity.
Doctors of chiropractic are trained in the diagnosis and management of WAD using a multimodal approach that embraces spinal and extremity manipulation, mobilization, and other manual therapies; exercise training tailored to the individual patient; nutritional counseling for reducing inflammation and promoting healing; various PT modalities including ultrasound, electrical stimulation, laser, and pulsed magnetic field; acupuncture and/or dry needling; and more. In more severe cases, doctors of chiropractic can also co-manage treatment with the patient’s medical physician, specialist, or other healthcare providers.