Wiping Out Whiplash

11/10/2008 MILWAUKEE "A car or truck was actually coming really fast behind me and there was nowhere I could go," Paula Winchel recalled to Ivanhoe.

More than ten years after her car was rear-ended, she is still suffering.

"I have a lot of intense pain at times where I get headaches, I have stiffness," she said. "There were times when I woke up every single morning with a headache."

Brian Stemper, Ph.D., a biomedical engineer at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, has studied whiplash injuries for a decade. His goal: find the best way to protect people behind the wheel.

"Originally, we thought that the whiplash was a hyperextension injury where the head rotates backward relative to the thorax, and that leads to a stretching in the soft tissues of the spine," Dr. Stemper explained to Ivanhoe.

Now he says extensive crash tests and computer modeling show whiplash happens before the head rotates backward. The key is the relationship between the head and chest.

"The goal in whiplash is to minimize the relative motion between the head and your chest," he said.

Research shows head rest position is crucial. Too low and too far back, it sets the stage for injury. Placed level with the top of your head, and two inches or less from the back of your head, it can prevent whiplash by limiting head movement.

"It's going to minimize the motions -- the relative motions between your head and your chest, which will cut down on the forces on the cervical spine in that rear impact," Dr. Stemper said.

Researchers also found in a similar impact, women's cervical spines move more than men's, making women five to 10 percent more susceptible to whiplash.

"When they're coming up fast behind me, I definitely get nervous," Winchel said.

Despite her nerves, Winchel is still on the road, but she's made the adjustments to protect herself in the driver's seat.

Dr. Stemper is working with automakers and says they're already taking steps to develop head restraints that help prevent whiplash injuries; but he says even if your car doesn't have that new equipment, taking a few minutes to adjust your headrest can keep you safer in a rear end collision.

Medical College of Wisconsin
Toranj Marphetia, Public Relations
(414) 456-4700


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