Have You Had Ridiculously Long-Lasting Effects After Whiplash?

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Presumably this mannequin suffered a lot more than whiplash.
Presumably this mannequin suffered a lot more than whiplash.
Photo: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP (Getty Images)

So, here’s a slightly off-the-wall question of the day for you fine folks at Jalopnik. If you’ve suffered whiplash as a result of a motor vehicle accident, did those effects last way longer than they were supposed to?

I’m finishing up my graduate degree this year, and my research thesis has involved studying the impacts of post-traumatic stress disorder—and I came across something I’d never heard before. In The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, Dissociation, and Disease, Robert Scaer posits that whiplash is less of a physical injury than it is a psychological one—but specifically when it comes to patients whose whiplash symptoms have lasted way longer than they should have.

Basically, Scaer found that in his treatment of patients who had car accidents, the ones who showed up months after their accidents still complaining of whiplash were often actually displaying PTSD symptoms without really realizing it. He notes that a lot of these patients are suffering from very real, physical issues—loss of balance, nausea, persistent pain—that are frequently thrown into doubt because insurance companies and doctors believed the pain should have subsided. After all, athletes who suffer whiplash generally don’t display those symptoms.


Scaer posits that, basically, the fact that the car leaves you physically immobile during a crash contributes to the development of these long-lasting symptoms because our bodies don’t get the opportunity to physically attempt to run away. But he also notes that whiplash is worse for people who were in shock immediately after the accident—a “freeze” response rather than a fight or flight one. These patients often had undergone some trauma previously in their lives (assault, war, other accidents, sudden death of a loved one, etc.) and that the car accident mainly served as the breaking point for their brains.

It’s kind of a weird theory, but the way Scaer explains it in The Body Bears the Burden makes a lot of sense. And since I’m asking y’all about your weird whiplash experiences, I’ll go ahead and share mine.

In college, I was hit by a car while I was walking across the street. It wasn’t a hard hit; it knocked me on my hands and knees, and I had some gnarly bruises, but I wasn’t totally incapacitated. But when I stood up, I was laughing. I brushed myself off, grabbed some ice, and walked to class, where I led a discussion and took a test. Then the shock wore off, and everything hit me like a freight train. I burst into tears and had to be led back to my apartment.

I was sore for a while, but a trip to the doctor showed I was physically fine. But months after the accident, when the bruising and swelling was gone, I still struggled to walk and turn my head. I went to specialists who basically all told me the same thing: I was fine. There was no real reason I should still have these physical symptoms.


Scaer notes that therapy will usually take care of these physical issues, especially therapy that digs deep into the stuff that messed you up in the past. I think I kind of stumbled into that by accident; I was in therapy at the time of the accident, but it wasn’t until later that we really started working on The Deep Stuff. My physical symptoms went away. At the time I attributed it to a healthier diet and more self-compassion, but now I’m wondering if I didn’t deal with all the weird feelings that reminded me of my past after I got hit.

It’s wild stuff, and I’d never heard of it before. So, share your stories in the comments! I have to know if this is as common as Scaer makes out.