Whiplash is one of the most common and widely recognized injuries resulting from collisions and can happen even in low speed rear end impacts. This type of injury results from a rear crash where the force causes an "S" shape in the neck, with the lower part of the neck initially extends while the upper part of the neck flexes before the whole neck goes into extension. Recovery can be slow and is often a much longer process than with other types of injuries (sports, lifting, repetitive strain, etc.) but most people do get better. Unfortunately, 5% of the injured population still finds themselves in a chronic pain state despite treatment and therapies.
So why do some people get better and some people don't? The more important question is 'how do we prevent whiplash from happening in the first place?' Researchers at the University of British Columbia are in the process of uncovering just that in an effort to curb this alarming trend. Chiropractor Dr. Jean Sébastien Blouin and Engineer Dr. Gunter Siegmund identified a significant overreaction in humans as a result of a read end impact that they've dubbed the "startle response." The neck muscles quickly "startle" and try to overcompensate for the forces being applied in a crash. As a result of this research and several other findings, the team is investigating safety devices that can mitigate the risk of injury during a collision.
Automobiles were introduced to North Americans in the late 1800s, yet safety devices such as the headrest and seat belts were not developed until much later. Up until recently, even the car's seats were viewed more from a perspective of comfort rather than one of safety. More and more manufacturers are now designing car seats that with help if a crash occurs, however, most of these seats are optimized for the 50th percentile male. Things such as headrest size and seat firmness are based on this body type which means that many of us are sitting in car seats that are not optimized for us. In fact, women are two to three times more likely to sustain a whiplash injury when compared to men. Dr. Siegmund recently conducted a presentation where he goes into these details [watch the Secret Science Café].
Drs. Blouin and Gunter are hoping to change all of this through the development of an active, smart car seat that responds to the occupant's mass and the type of crash. With this information, the seat can then adjust itself, in real time, helping to prevent injury. For example, the seat hinge may pull back and the chair back may soften to help absorb the crash forces. If successful, this research could result in a revolutionary new approach to seats in vehicles that actively adjust to their passengers and the surrounding environment - in essence, an optimized seat no matter what your weight, height or gender.
There is still much to do in terms of testing these theories and putting all of the research together but Drs. Blouin and Siegmund are confident that active car seats will be making their way into the marketplace within 5-10 years. It's just a matter of time before your next vehicle purchase includes active anti-whiplash seats for you and your passengers.