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Whiplash, Traumatic Brain Injury, and the Eyes


Whiplash is the term most frequently associated with automobile accidents. We hear the word all the time, is it a real thing?

People who are injured often use this word to describe their personal experience of a collision. An individual describes the head jerking motion we have all felt in a car from an accident or sudden braking maneuver. Everyone seems to have a concept of whiplash- it implies a rapid acceleration/deceleration of the head. The neck and head snap forward and backward- the head is heavy. Even with airbags and a shoulder harness, the head is never locked into position.

The brain is encased in a hard skull with fluid underneath to protect the brain. The skull is fixed and rigid but the brain is soft and can move. The brain may come into direct contact with the inside of the skull during a sudden jolt. This can also happen in a side to side motion.

This type of whiplash usually produces neck and back injuries. Patients experience direct pain and tenderness and are referred to appropriate specialists. Since there is no direct evidence of head injury such as bleeding or bruising, the brain is often ignored. Usually, several days after the accident the patient notices neurologic symptoms such as difficulties in concentration, balance, or with vision.

The accident victim no longer in the emergency room may neglect these vague after-effects and just feel this is part of normal whiplash. It is ultimately unclear if whiplash directly causes neurologic and vision issues or is part of a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI). Research is still controversial on this subject.

However, the complaints are real. The blurred vision, headaches, and difficulty in reading are often obvious.

Doctors and accident victims should not be reassured by the label “just whiplash” or ” it’s just a little tightness in the neck muscles.” Many of these patients end up seeing a neurologist or eye doctor at a later date. I see most of my “whiplash” patients months after initial injury and physical therapy. The central theme in many of my blogs is don’t ignore visual complaints, let the eye doctor evaluate the eyes. Whiplash can indicate the brain has been shaken. The sad stories and concussions of many ex-NFL players have taught society this lesson.

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