Objective: To establish the aetiological influences of persistent neck pain following a motor vehicle collision and to construct a model for use in the emergency department for identifying patients at high risk of persistent symptoms.
Design: Prospective cohort study. Patients recruited from hospital emergency departments were sent a questionnaire to gather information on various exposures. They were followed up at 1, 3, and 12 months to identify those with persistent symptoms.
Main outcome measure: Persistent neck pain (pain at 1, 3, and 12 months after collision).
Results: The baseline survey included 765 patients. Subsequently, 480 completed a questionnaire at each follow up time point, of whom 128 (27%) reported neck pain on each occasion. Few collision specific factors predicted persistent neck pain. In contrast, a high level of general psychological distress, pre-collision history of widespread body pain, type of vehicle, whiplash associated symptoms, and initial neck disability best predicted the persistence of symptoms. Furthermore, these factors, in combination, accounted for more than a fivefold increase in the risk of persistent neck pain.
Conclusion: The greatest predictors of persistent neck pain following a motor vehicle collision relate to psychological distress and aspects of pre-collision health rather than to various attributes of the collision itself. With these factors, and those relating to initial injury severity, it is possible to identify a subgroup of patients presenting with neck pain with the highest risk of persistent symptoms. Thus, it is possible to identify whiplash patients with a poor prognosis and to provide closer follow up and specific attention to management in these individuals.