WebMD Health News
Louise Chang, MD
Jan. 22, 2008 -- The initial level of pain
after a whiplash injury, as well as psychological factors such as having
positive expectations for getting better, best predict who will recover
promptly from whiplash, according to research presented this week at the World
Congress on Neck Pain in Los Angeles.
Researchers also released task force findings on the best assessment and
treatment of whiplash and other neck pain.
Whiplash is an injury to the neck that usually occurs because of sudden
extension and flexion, often during an auto accident. Most whiplash victims
recover in a few months, but many report recurring pain a year or more
Whiplash is reported in about 2 million insurance claims per year in the
U.S., according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Recently,
researchers have begun to focus more on predictors of recovery.
The level of pain three weeks after a whiplash injury is "the single
most important predictor of who recovers in a timely manner," says David
Walton, PT, a researcher at The University of Western Ontario in London,
Ontario, Canada. He reviewed 14 published studies including more than 3,000
whiplash patients and presented his findings at the Congress.
Those who rate their pain as less than 5 on a commonly used 10-point pain
scale are more likely to recover quickly, he tells WebMD.
A person's expectations of recovery from whiplash also matter, says Lena
Holm, DrMedSc, a research fellow at the Institute of Environmental Medicine at
Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden.
With her colleagues, she evaluated the recovery expectations of more than
1,000 insurance claimants who filed a neck injury claim after a car collision
to one of two insurance companies in Sweden between January 2004 and January
Three weeks after the injury, Holm's team asked the claimants how likely
they felt they would recover fully. At six months, they compared the disability
level of the participants with expectations.
"Expectations had a big impact," she tells WebMD, even after
adjusting for physical symptoms and other factors. Those who felt initially that
they wouldn't make a full recovery were more than four times as likely to be in
the group of the "more disabled" participants at six months than those
who felt more positively about their chances for a recovery, she says.
Those prone to catastrophic thinking also fare poorly, Walton found in his
analysis of 14 studies.
"These are the people who can't get the pain out of their mind, who
believe this is the worst thing that has ever happened to them," he
Feeling down or blue immediately after a whiplash injury is common, says
Leah Phillips, a PhD student and researcher at the University of Alberta,
Edmonton, Canada. The depressed feeling is more likely to persist in those
under age 50 with less education and income, she found in a survey of nearly
5,500 adults in Saskatchewan who had suffered whiplash injuries between 1997
Those who had more initial neck pain and low back
pain, as well as higher levels of anxiety right after the injury, were also more likely to
keep reporting the depressed feeling during the one-year follow-up, she
She wasn't measuring true clinical
depression, she says, but asked at each follow up whether the patients had
a depressed mood. "It could develop into clinical depression," she
Wearing a neck collar to immobilize the area after whiplash injury is
outdated, says Sylvia Schick, MD, MPH, a researcher at the Institute for Legal
Medicine at Ludwig Maximilians Universitat in Munich, Germany.
Many physicians still prescribe the device, Schick says, but her comparison
study of those who wore the collar with those who did not shows it is not
Using the data base of a large insurance company in Germany, Schick and her
colleagues compared the results of 31 whiplash patients treated without a neck
collar and 40 with the neck collar. Both groups got about the same length and
quality of treatment, she says, although those treated with the collar were
also more likely to get pain-killing drugs.
No differences were found between groups in reports of neck pain or
stiffness, she says. Those who wore the collar actually were absent longer from
work than those who did not wear it. One study limitation, says Schick, was
lack of information about how long the collars were worn.
SOURCES:David Walton, PT, researcher, The University of Western Ontario, London,
Lena Holm, DrMedSc, research fellow, Institute of EnvironmentalÂ
Medicine, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden.
Leah Phillips, researcher, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada.
Sylvia Schick, MD, MPH, researcher, Institute for Legal Medicine, Ludwig
Maximilians Universitat, Munich, Germany.
Margareta Nordin, DrSci, research professor, New York University School of
Medicine, New York.
J. David Cassidy, DC, PhD, DrMedSci, senior scientist, Toronto Western
World Congress on Neck Pain, Los Angleles, Jan. 20-22, 2008.
Russ Rader, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
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