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Chronic whiplash symptoms caused by brain changes

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Research published in the medical journal EBioMedicine sheds new light on whiplash symptoms that last years after a car accident.

The study identifies changes in the parts of the brain connected to pain and posture processing.

Whiplash is a neck injury caused by sudden movement of the head forwards, backwards or sideways. Symptoms can include pain in the head, neck and jaw, a family of symptoms known as whiplash-associated disorder, which is notoriously difficult to diagnose.

“Patients often report these symptoms for years, but if they do see a doctor nothing shows up on the tests,” explained Dr David Vállez García, lead author of the study. “Many people start thinking they may be making the symptoms up or trying to make a claim for compensation. It’s a tricky situation in which the patient is in pain, the doctors can’t explain it and people think they’re making it up. We wanted to uncover a real cause of the symptoms — one that could help doctors diagnose and treat it.”

The researchers, from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and Offenburg University in Germany, scanned the brains of eight healthy, pain-free women and 12 with chronic whiplash-associated disorder (cWAD) using a technique called positron emission tomography (PET). Each group was exposed to four different levels of non-painful electrical neck stimulation while being scanned.

The results showed changes in the blood flow in areas of the brain involved in pain perception and processing sensory information from within the body (interoceptive stimuli). According to the researchers, these changes could be down to a mismatch in the way interoceptive stimuli are integrated in pain processing regions.

The authors of the study hope that their findings bring closer the possibility of diagnosing cWAD, potentially helping relieve people’s pain.