if you've ever been in a rear-end collision, you may have experienced whiplash. There are more than 3 million whiplash injuries in the U.S. every year, painful conditions that often linger months or even years after the accident You may not be able to prevent another driver from crashing into you, but there may be a simple way you can protect your neck.
Before we put the wheels in motion, most of us make adjustments to the car. There's the seat, the rearview mirror, the side mirrors and the steering wheel, but what about the headrest? It's something Paula Winchel said she now pays attention to.
"A car or truck was actually coming really fast behind me and there was nowhere I could go," she said.
More than ten years after her car was rear-ended, Winchel said she is still suffering.
"I have a lot of intense pain at times where I get headaches," she said.
Biomedical engineer Doctor Brian Stemper has studied whiplash injuries for a decade. His goal: find the best way to protect people behind the wheel.
"Originally, we thought that the whiplash was a hyperextension injury where the head rotates backward relative to the thorax, and that leads to a stretching in the soft tissues of the spine," Stemper said.
Now, he says, extensive crash tests and computer modeling show whiplash happens before the head rotates backward. The key is the relationship between the head and chest.
"The goal in whiplash is to minimize the relative motion between the head and your chest," Stemper said.
Research shows headrest position is crucial. Placed level with the top of your head and two inches or less from the back of your head, it can prevent whiplash by limiting head movement.
"It's going to minimize the motions, the relative motions between your head and your chest, which will cut down on the forces in the cervical spine in that rear impact," said Dr. Dan Hurley, physiatrist, Chicago Institute of Neurosurgery and Neuroresearch.
Realistically, a rear-end collision can happen so fast that there's almost never time to prepare on the spot.
But Hurley says making a habit of sitting back in your chair all the time can give you an edge when you least expect to need it.
"Any way that that motion up there can be stabilized, whether you have a chance to sit back or whether the headrest is a little closer, you will at least eliminate the force," he said.
Researchers also found that in similar impacts, women's cervical spines move more than men's, making women five to 10 percent more susceptible to whiplash. The slender shape of women's necks may also make them more vulnerable. And while some whiplash can be very serious, there's good news for the majority of those affected.
"They have done the studies to show most people generally resolve their symptoms in a couple months after the average whiplash," Hurley said.
"When they're coming up fast behind me, I definitely get nervous," Winchel said of other dirvers.
Despite her nerves, Winchel is still on the road, but she's made the adjustments to protect herself in the driver's seat.
Doctor Stemper is working with automakers and says they're already taking steps to develop head restraints that help prevent whiplash injuries. But even if your car doesn't have that new equipment, taking a few minutes to adjust your headrest could help keep you safer in a rear end collision.