When we hear the term “whiplash,” we usually envision a rear-end motor vehicle collision that results in the head being thrown to and fro, in a “crack-the-whip” manner resulting in a neck injury. What we DON’T usually think about is “how to prevent whiplash,” which is this month’s topic. Let’s take a look!
According to the “Whiplash Prevention Campaign,” the most effective way to prevent whiplash injuries in the event of a crash is to purchase a car with a highly-rated head rest and then TO ADJUST THE HEAD RESTRAINT PROPERLY! Although airbags and seat belts (and other safety devices and systems) help protect us in front and side impact collision, a properly designed seat and adjusted head restraint will protect us the most from sustaining a whiplash injury in a rear-end collision.
Here’s how it works! The most common problem with head restraints is how they’re positioned. In most cases, the head restraint is placed too low and too far from the back of the head. In a “typical” rear-end impact, the car and car seat are propelled forwards while the unsupported head stays still resulting in a relative extension of the cervical spine (neck). This “hyper-extension” is exaggerated by a seat that is set in a semi-reclined angle, which causes a ramp-effect that allows the head and neck to slide up and over the head restraint! Also, the “springiness” of the seat back can further augment the forward propulsion of the body upon impact and exaggerates the forward “bounce” of the body and head AFTER the hyper-extension of the neck as the body is propelled forwards in the second phase of the whiplash injury. A properly adjusted head restraint (and seat back angle) does NOT allow the head to ride up and over the head rest thus preventing injury in the initial phase of the rear-end collision.
To properly adjust your head restraint, have another person assist you while you are properly sitting in the seat. Once the restraint’s position is properly set, place a piece of tape and/or a marker on the head restraint brackets/posts so if someone else drives the vehicle and alters the position, you can easily return it to its proper height FOR YOU! Note: 1) Do NOT recline the seat back greater than 20 degrees; 2) While sitting comfortably, have the other person slide the head restraint upwards until the top of the restraint is EVEN WITH THE TOP OF YOUR HEAD; 3) Move the head restraint forwards so that it is about 5 cm (2 inches) from the back of the head because closer head restraints are two times more effective at injury prevention vs. those set further back!
Unfortunately, a Canadian study in 2002 found that only about 14% of the headrests evaluated were properly adjusted! In the United Kingdom, the percentage was a little better (28%), but that means 72% of front seat occupants failed to properly adjust their head restraints or they had head restraints that could NOT BE PROPERLY ADJUSTED! Of the remaining 28% who did have the head restraint in the proper position, 11% had a fixed / non-adjustable one piece design and the protection was limited to only a shorter person!
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