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The Roller Coaster Ride of Whiplash

Whiplash is a relatively common injury that occurs to a person’s neck following a sudden acceleration-deceleration force.

Motor vehicle accidents, falls or impact to the body cause unrestrained, rapid forward and backward movement of the head and neck causing damage to soft tissue (muscles, ligaments, joint capsules), bones, and joints.

Common symptoms related to whiplash may include: neck pain and stiffness, headache, shoulder pain and stiffness, dizziness, jaw pain, arm pain, arm weakness, visual disturbances, ringing in the ear, fatigue and foggy headedness.

Most people who have been in a motor vehicle accident generally expect to exhibit some of the above mentioned physical symptoms. Most people are not aware of the emotional symptoms of whiplash until they are in the thick of it. My clients have reported a wide variety of emotional states such as depression, anger, frustration, anxiety, stress and/or irritability. They report sleep disturbances and symptoms of post traumatic stress syndrome.

What sometimes will compound the situation is that they feel embarrassed or silly that they are so “irrational” or “out of control”. Some report that they are” quick to tears over the smallest thing”. They say “I don’t feel like myself.” They feel fragile. They can feel like they are on an emotional roller coaster.

They may feel isolated. One client reported that she wouldn’t go out of the house for over a month after her car accident.

They might find themselves viewing the car accident over and over in their head. They might have nightmares or day dreams about the accident. “What could they have done differently? Why did this happen to them?”

What they don’t know is that these emotional symptoms are part of a broader term called “Whiplash Associated Disorder”. It is very common and a normal part of a traumatic, stressful event. The added ups and downs of healing from the physical symptoms can further the feeling of frustration.

How can we as healers, bodyworkers and massage therapists help our clients? Here are a few guidelines that I find helpful for my clients on this wild ride.

First, I find it extremely helpful to reassure my clients that what they are experiencing is “normal” for a whiplash injury. There is a level of relaxation in their nervous system just to hear “No… you are not crazy. This is normal. Lots of people have the same experience.”

It is so important for them to know that are not alone in this process. This information alone can begin to turn the process around. The look of relief on my client’s faces when I share this shows me that this information is precious.

Encourage your clients to be gentle, compassionate and understanding with themselves as they move through their healing process, especially when they are having “one of those breakdowns”. The resisting of their emotional state adds to their stress and can become a vicious cycle.

If their symptoms are particularly strong, a referral to a counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist or someone who does trauma work such as Somatic Experiencing may be in order. Make sure you know the names of a few mental health practitioners in your area so you can make a referral. Second, working with the breath can have profound effects on the nervous system.

All stress and trauma go to the respiratory diaphragm. People who are experiencing anxiety generally are not breathing in an efficient manner. They often are not fully exhaling. They are held in an inhale. Helping your client to find belly breathing can help ground their energy and reduce anxiety.

Have your client lie face up, knees supported in a bent knee position. Have them place their hands on their belly. Encourage them to gently take a few easy breaths initiating the breath from their belly. They can exhale through their nose or mouth. Exhaling through the mouth as if they were blowing out through a straw helps encourage a long slow controlled exhale. After 3-5 breaths, go back to normal breathing. Repeat. Encourage your client to do this at home several times a day.

Other beneficial options include:

Craniosacral Therapy. Because of its deep connection to the nervous system, Craniosacral Therapy can be helping someone move from sympathetic nervous system overload (fight or flight) to parasympathetic nervous system balance (rest and digest). Craniosacral Therapy can be very grounding and deeply relaxing. It can help to balance the bones and fascial lines. It is especially helpful to bring balance to the cranial base, the temporal bones, the atlanto-occipital joint and sacrum as these are often affected with a whiplash injury.

Essential oils can also be helpful with alleviating symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression. Lavender is calming and relaxing. Lemongrass helps to relax the nervous system as well as soothe  muscle aches. Essential oils that help with grounding such as the doTerra Balance formula (spruce, rosewood , frankincense and blue tansy) helps clients feel more connected and can relieve anxiety. Always check with your client for sensitivity to aromas before using any of the oils.

Above all, be kind, gentle and understanding with your client’s process.

Encourage them to be patient  with their recovery. Most people want to get back to their life as quickly as possible. I find the healing process is less bumpy when we acknowledge the impact of the trauma and honor the healing process.

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