Synopsis It is generally accepted that up to 50% of those with a whiplash injury following a motor vehicle collision will fail to fully recover. Twenty-five percent of these patients will demonstrate a markedly complex clinical picture that includes severe pain-related disability, sensory and motor disturbances, and psychological distress. A number of psychosocial factors have shown prognostic value for recovery following whiplash from a motor vehicle collision. To date, no management approach (eg, physical therapies, education, psychological interventions, or interdisciplinary strategies) for acute whiplash has positively influenced recovery rates. For many of the probable pathoanatomical lesions (eg, fracture, ligamentous rupture, disc injury), there remains a lack of available clinical tests for identifying their presence. Fractures, particularly at the craniovertebral and cervicothoracic junctions, may be radiographically occult. While high-resolution computed tomography scans can detect fractures, there remains a lack of prevalence data for fractures in this population. Conventional magnetic resonance imaging has not consistently revealed lesions in patients with acute or chronic whiplash, a "failure" that may be due to limitations in the resolution of available devices and the use of standard sequences. The technological evolution of imaging techniques and sequences eventually might provide greater resolution to reveal currently elusive anatomical lesions (or, perhaps more importantly, temporal changes in physiological responses to assumed lesions) in those patients at risk of poor recovery. Preliminary findings from 2 prospective cohort studies in 2 different countries suggest that this is so, as evidenced by changes to the structure of skeletal muscles in those who do not fully recover. In this clinical commentary, we will briefly introduce the available imaging decision rules and the current knowledge underlying the pathomechanics and pathophysiology of whiplash. We will then acknowledge known prognostic factors underlying functional recovery. Last, we will highlight emerging evidence regarding the pathobiology of muscle degeneration/regeneration, as well as advancements in neuroimaging and musculoskeletal imaging techniques (eg, functional magnetic resonance imaging, magnetization transfer imaging, spectroscopy, diffusion-weighted imaging) that may be used as noninvasive and objective complements to known prognostic factors associated with whiplash recovery, in particular, poor functional recovery. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 2016;46(10):861-872. doi:10.2519/jospt.2016.6735.
Keywords: cervical spine; functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI); magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) research; radiology/medical imaging; spinal pain.