Whiplash occurs when the neck experiences a sudden and forceful back-and-forth movement. It is most commonly associated with rear-end car accidents. The impact of being hit from behind throws the head forward before snapping it back to its original position. The neck has no time to brace itself for the impact. The result is a condition involving pain, discomfort and tension in the neck that can last for months after the incident. Whiplash can also occur as the result of other trauma, such as a sports injury. While whiplash is characterized by neck trauma, it can have a reverberating effect on the rest of the back.
Whiplash and Back Pain
Despite the spinal column being the central structural support system for the entire body, it is sensitive to trauma. Even something as subtle as forward head posture can have an effect on back pain. So getting in a car accident can, of course, have a much more severe effect on the rest of the back. Symptoms of whiplash include stiffness and soreness in the neck, a loss of range of motion, headaches and dizziness. For many people, the neck muscles seize up to protect the cervical spine. This can cause muscles in the mid and even lower back to respond in kind. If there is a preexisting back condition, whiplash may aggravate it further.
Trauma and the Nervous System
When the body experiences physical trauma, the nervous system reacts to keep the body safe. It switches into “fight or flight” mode and reacts quickly to the situation at hand. In the case of whiplash, the muscles of the neck and upper body tense up to re-stabilise the cervical spine. Even after the trauma is over, the body often stays tense. This can be due, in part, to a now overly sensitive and overactive nervous system. Effectively, the nervous system becomes reconditioned by the experience and learns to react, even when trauma is not imminent. The result is what is known as whiplash and it has as much to do with the nervous system as it does with the muscles in the body.
Whiplash and Yoga
As yoga can address both the physical and nervous system ramifications of trauma, it can be an effective part of a whiplash rehabilitation program. The movement and stretching in yoga helps to remobilise the neck and body. The more meditative side of yoga helps to recondition the nervous system to be less jumpy. While all of these things take time, there is usually a feeling of mild relief after only one session. It is important to choose a style of yoga that will help support your recovery and not aggravate it further. Also, styles of yoga that emphasize meditation will be of benefit.
Restorative Yoga for Whiplash
Restorative yoga is often used to help people manage trauma. It is a very gentle practice that involves supporting the body substantially with props. Props can include bolsters, blankets, blocks, straps and sandbags. They are used in combination to “cradle” the body in such a way that allows for deep relaxation. Deep relaxation being an experience or state where unconscious holding patterns and tension in the body are able to release. Poses are typically held for at least five minutes. There is adequate time to move in between poses and sometimes classes will incorporate other modalities such as massage, aromatherapy and/or reiki.
As the poses in a restorative yoga session are held for such long periods of time, the parasympathetic nervous system can switch on. The “rest and digest” nervous system is in charge of activating the systems of the body focused on repairs and the integration of nutrients. Whiplash can result in an overly excitable sympathetic nervous system. So restorative yoga offers time for the body to switch off and get to work undoing the damage that has been done. Like any yoga practice, restorative yoga affects the whole body. So any back pain that came on or got worse as the result of whiplash, will benefit from a restorative yoga practice as well.
Other Styles of Yoga and Whiplash
Other styles of yoga can be beneficial to whiplash rehabilitation as well. Hot yoga is a popular option as the heat helps to relax the body while offering mobilization options for the neck and back. Whatever style of yoga you choose, be mindful when moving the neck and avoid back bending as that can create compression in the cervical spine. The key to recovering from whiplash is to be gentle with the body. Modify poses when you need to and don’t be afraid to take lots of rest. Over time, you should notice an improvement in both your whiplash and your back pain.