Unique MRI can predict chronic pain after a whiplash injury

Nov 06 2017

Remember that “not-so-bad” accident you had at work the other week? It might return to haunt you weeks or even months from now with severe chronic pain if the accident involved any form of whiplash. These types of injuries can have lasting effects—even putting someone in so much pain that they will be affected by it every day for the rest of their life.

On average, about 25 percent of people have chronic pain for months or even years after whiplash occurs. But a study from Northwestern Medicine shows that scientists may have found an identifier for who will suffer from chronic pain after whiplash and who will recover fully afterward.

Studying chronic pain after whiplash

In 2015, the scientists involved in the study discovered a way to use special MRI imaging to identify the unique factors that they believe lead to chronic pain. If they completed their imagery within the first one to two weeks after whiplash occurred, they were able to tell which patients would develop severe symptoms, such as:

  • Chronic pain
  • Permanent or temporary disability
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD occurs in at least 10% of collision survivors)

The process for determining future chronic pain

The MRI imaging used in these studies is looking for muscular changes—specifically the fat to water ratio in the muscles of the injury area. In the case of someone who will have chronic pain, their body will have large amounts of fat in the neck muscles which shows rapid atrophy, or wasting away of the tissue, has occurred. These findings may help more doctors know what to look for after a person suffers whiplash and give them a better treatment plan.

Whiplash can be severe and have lasting effects

If you have a whiplash accident while on the job, do not take it lightly. Disorders following whiplash affect more than 4 million Americans and can lower your quality of life—don’t let the high costs of lifelong physical therapy and medical care for chronic pain come out of your pocket when you’ve been injured while doing your job.