is an injury to the neck which often happens to people in automobile
accidents. Among those victims of whiplash, 60% never fully recover.
This could be because of unrecognised damage to your jaw joints
and muscles which support those joints. This page explains how that
damage might occur from a whiplash and how your dentist might help.
'Whiplash' is the common term for a neck injury
which often occurs when riding in a car which is hit from behind.
Typically, the passenger's head forcibly snaps backward as the body
is thrown forward. The head may then snap forward in a recoil motion.
This severe backward and forward motion damages the neck muscles
and especially the soft tissues (muscles and ligaments) supporting
the neck, head, and jaw.
It is easy to see why this damage happens, when
you consider that the head itself weighs up to 15 pounds (the weight
of an average bowling ball). When this 'bowling ball' snaps backward,
it creates 500-600 pounds of force on the neck! Women are even more
vulnerable to whiplash injuries than men because their neck muscles
are smaller in relation to head weight.
Symptoms of Whiplash
Since injuries to soft tissues do not show up on x-rays, it is difficult
to immediately see whether or not these structures have been damaged.
The symptoms may not be felt until hours or days after the accident.
One symptoms do appear, however, they can be very painful and quite
pain, stiffness, and decreased range of motion
of the head and face
of vision and pain behind the eyes
in the ears
reason why symptoms may persist is because in many cases of whiplash,
the jaw joints and the muscles which support the jaw are damaged
as well. the accident may trigger a condition in which these muscles
go into spasm and become very painful. Specific clues as to whether
this damage occurred include:
in or around the jaw joints
or popping of the jaw joints
or limited opening of your mouth
with bringing your teeth together
both patients and healthcare providers often do not suspect that
the jaw joints and muscles may have been damaged, this aspect often
goes unrecognised. When not recognised and treated it can become
the dominant medical problem.
can the jaw be affected by a neck injury? To understand this, it
is necessary to have some understanding of how the head, neck, and
jaw are related.
the Head on the Spine
In everyday life, carrying the head upright is no small task! The
head is completely supported by the neck - which also serves as
the head's lifeline to the rest of the body. The uppermost part
of the spine provides the skeletal support for the neck. These seven
small bones, or vertebrae, are called the cervical spine. Attached
to and between the vertebrae are pads of cartilage called discs,
which act as cushions or shock absorbers as the spinal bones move.
The skull sits on top of the atlas - the uppermost bone of the cervical
spine. The Atlas is appropriately named after the Greek god who
supported the weight of the world on his shoulders.
the Jaw Attaches
The mandible, or jaw, is the moving part of the head that is involved
in speaking, chewing, and swallowing. It is attached to the skull
by two joints on either side of your head, just in front of your
ears. These joints are called the Temperomandibular Joints (TMJ
for short). These joints also have a small disc of cartilage which
sits on tope of each joint like a cap to allow for smooth movement
of the jaw. Jaw movement is controlled by a complex balance of many
muscles. Some of these muscles attach the jaw to the skull. These
allow you to close your teeth together. Others attach the jaw to
the front of the neck from below, and allow you to open your mouth
very wide. Keeping the head properly balanced on top of your spine
involves the many muscles of the jaw, neck, shoulders and back.
the neck is forced to move beyond its normal range of motion, as
with a whiplash, the muscles and ligaments stretch and tear. The
discs which cushion and protect the neck vertebrae may also be damaged.
Joint Damage from Whiplash
The muscles which control your jaw are also affected. Those which
attach the jaw to the front of the neck do not have time to relax.
They end up anchoring the jaw by holding it still so that the mouth
opens too wide while the head snaps back. This excessive opening
of the mouth while the head snaps backward may cause the jaw joints
to dislocate. They are often rammed up against the back of the delicate
part of the skull bone which encases these joints. As with the spinal
column, this may compress and damage the disc which cushions each
jaw joint from these delicate areas. It is estimated that 38% of
all impulses that go to your brain pass by the TMJ area. Consequently,
when these joints are displaced, they impinge on sensitive nerve
endings and cause a variety of symptoms. Many of these symptoms
are quite similar to those which are typically associated with whiplash.
you, a friend, or a relative are suffering from the persistent symptoms
of whiplash and suspect that your jaw joints and surrounding muscles
might have been damaged, contact your dentist. Your dentist will
conduct a thorough evaluation of the joint area. If the jaw muscles
or joints were damaged, treatment will involve fitting an orthotic
device, or 'splint' between your upper and lower teeth. This will
limit the movement of the injured joints and properly support the
jaw so that pain is reduced and healing can occur. It will also
prevent further damage to the TMJ area.