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  • Writer's pictureDr. Keith McGahey

Whiplash Injury - Should I Relax During A Car Crash?

Updated: Feb 1

I've been a Chiropractor for a long time, and I've treated a lot of car crash and whiplash injuries. It's the area of practice I enjoy most, and what I do best. If you've been involved in a motor vehicle collision, it's important you see someone who specializes in this type of injury. The decisions you make now could have a significant impact on your future health.


Dr. Keith McGahey has been a Chiropractor in Bellevue, WA for over 25 years. Dr. McGahey has advanced training in whiplash & spinal trauma from the Research Institute of San Diego, and served on the board of the Brain Injury Alliance of Washington. Dr. McGahey has been featured on King 5 News, was nominated for Top Alternative Provider by Seattle Magazine, and received the award for Outstanding Clinical Excellence from Western States University.


Woman with whiplash injury after a car crash

When it comes to whiplash injury, there is no shortage of bad information out there. And that bad information can hinder people from making good decisions when they’re involved in a car crash. With that in mind, this is my first article aiming to dispel some of the more common myths surrounding whiplash injury.

Myth #1: You Should Try To Relax During A Car Crash

One of the first questions I ask someone who was involved in car crash is, were you aware you were going to be hit? The answer is often ‘no’, which isn’t surprising since in a lot of whiplash injury victims are struck from behind. But what is surprising is the number of people that follow that up with, ‘at least that’s good because I was relaxed‘. Wait, what!?!? Where does this idea come from? For me it’s a real head-scratcher, but it’s a myth that never loses steam. In fact, I hear it so often from patients that I start to question whether it might be correct (it isn’t).

Your Muscles Are Your Best Defense Against A Whiplash Injury

Your muscles are one of your most important sources of protection against whiplash injury, but when they’re relaxed you lose that protection. During a car crash, tensed muscles take the brunt of the force of the crash, and those forces can be significant. Muscles can absorb an incredible amount of force if they're tensed and prepared for impact.

This dynamic is extremely important in the neck, given the fact that your head is attached to it. If your muscles are relaxed during a crash, that force is absorbed by more delicate structures of your head and neck. That can mean damage to your joints, discs, nerves, ligaments, and other soft tissues. On top of that, muscles heal fairly well, and fairly quickly. Those other delicate structures? Not so much.

Whiplash Injuries Are Like Blind Side Hits In Football

Let me give you some real world examples. Since the Seahawks are in full swing, let’s start with a football analogy. If you’re a football fan, you know some of the most dangerous hits for players are blindside hits. When the player doesn’t see the hit coming they’re vulnerable, and have no chance to protect themselves. My favorite online dictionary sums it up nicely: “blindside – to catch unawares, especially with harmful consequences.” Any player in the league will tell you they'd rather know the hit was coming.

If you’re still not buying the ‘don’t relax’ argument, try this. Close your eyes and imagine that you’ve climbed to the top of a ladder (please don’t actually climb one), and suddenly you lose your balance and fall. As you’re hurtling towards the ground, imagine making your body go totally limp just before you hit. It doesn't feel right, does it? Now, this all assumes that you have the choice to relax, but maybe you don’t.

Who's Really In Control? Spoiler Alert: Your Brain Is

Have you ever had something thrown at your head when you’re not paying attention (I’m looking at you Frisbee guy)? In an instant your eyes close, you turn your head away and duck, and bring your arms up to protect yourself . You don’t make a conscious decision to do those things, your body just springs into action before you have time to think about it.

This is an example of something called a reflex action. These are powerful reflexes that are beyond your control. They are triggered by your brain to help protect you from injury (like a whiplash injury) and improve your chances of survival. And that’s a good thing!

Whiplash Injury Treatment In Bellevue

When it comes to whiplash injury, there are 2 things I’m fairly certain of. One, people in car crashes who are unaware, and unable to brace for a collision, are likely to suffer a worse whiplash injury than those who are aware. Two, if you are aware that you’re going to be hit, you’ll have a difficult time overriding your brain’s desire for self-preservation.

Just be thankful your brain is in control of the the situation, and let your muscles do their thing. You’ll be glad you did. And if you’ve been in a crash and need whiplash injury treatment, schedule an appointment and let's talk.

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