Whiplash (Motor Vehicle Accident) Associated Headaches
What are Whiplash-Associated Headaches?
Whiplash Injuries most commonly occur following Motor Vehicle Accidents (MVA), where the driver experiences impact from the front, rear or side of the vehicle. They can also occur in diving, or other high velocity sporting activities. Rapid acceleration and deceleration of the head causes a transfer of energy into the neck, resulting in damage or dysfunction to the muscles, ligaments, discs or joints in the neck.
Depending on the extent or type of Whiplash Injury, they can cause mild to severe headaches or migraines. These pains can be focal to one side of the head, or even be experienced on both sides of the head, depending on the specific presentation. Pain can also be experienced down the spine, shoulders and arms. In more severe whiplash injuries, damage to ligaments in the upper cervical spine can lead to Neck Tongue Syndrome (NTS), these patients will report numbness and/or tingling to one half of the tongue, in conjunction to pain in the neck or head .
What are the risk factors of developing headaches following trauma to the head and/or neck?
The International Headache Society guidelines suggest that the following factors may increase the risk of developing headaches from a whiplash injury ;
- Previous Headaches
- Low severity of injury to the head and/or neck
- Being female
- The co-presence of psychiatric disorders
There are 2 types of Whiplash Associated Headaches
- Acute headaches
- Headaches of less than 3 months’ duration following a whiplash injury 
- Persistent headaches
- Headaches of more than 3 months’ duration caused by whiplash 
Why do Whiplash (Motor Vehicle Accident) injuries cause Headaches?
Whiplash is a regular cause of headache and migraine in the Gold Coast area. The acceleration and deceleration affect of whiplash injuries on the cervical spine results in dysfunction of structures in the upper neck. Modern research suggests that this dysfunction results in a sensitised brainstem, also located within the upper cervical spine [3, 4].
The brainstem, or more specifically the Trigemino-cervical nucleus (TCN), houses nerves that arrive from both the head and face, as well as structures in the upper cervical spine. The information coming from the dysfunctional, or injured, structures in the upper neck is easily confused by the TCN as dangerous, pain is then referred to the head or face. The increased sensitivity of the brainstem in these situations, results in the wide range of headaches and migraines that can occur following a whiplash injury.
These are the most common:
- Chronic Daily Headache
- Tension- Type Headache
- Migraine Headache
- Hormonal Headache
- Menstrual Migraine
- Cluster headaches
- Cervicogenic Headache
- Sinus Headache
- Vertigo-Cervical Headache
In fact, most headache and migraine patients do report some form of neck injury in the past that can be related to their headache symptoms.
I’ve already tried everything. What else can be done to help Whiplash Associated Headaches?
Many sufferers of Whiplash Associated Headache in the Gold Coast area have tried many different types of treatment, with mixed results. Commonly, sufferers have tried; physiotherapy, osteopathy, acupuncture, medications or even neurologists and surgery. At The Headache and Migraine Clinic we use the most recent research and techniques to assess whether the upper cervical spine and the severity of your Sensitised brainstem, in order to see if they are in fact the cause of your headaches. We also specifically assess the important ligaments in your upper neck, to ensure that treatment and assessment is 100% safe to complete. The alar ligament, the transverse ligament, tectorial membrane and the odontoid process can all be damaged in a whiplash injury, and must be assessed by a health professional to ensure the safety of any treatment.
If we can determine that your cervical spine and a sensitised brainstem are the cause of your headaches and migraines, and it is deemed safe to do so, then treatment can start right away. We expect to see rapid results within the first five sessions, as we do with 85-90% of our patients’. At The Headache and Migraine Institute, we are not in the business of giving false hope, if it appears that your cervical spine and sensitised brainstem are not the cause of your headaches, unfortunately we will not be able to help, but we will let you know in session one and immediately refer you to someone we believe can.