Dizziness from whiplash and head injury: differences between whiplash and head injury

Am J Otol. 1998 Nov;19(6):814-8.


Objective: Large discrepancies exist in the literature regarding incidence and types of symptomatology in whiplash. This is because of the evolution of whiplash injury over the years with the advent of head rests and seat belts. Previous authors have regarded symptoms of dizziness as a result of brainstem or cerebellar injury or both. It has been difficult in those studies to ascribe a mechanism of injury, as patients with whiplash injury only have been grouped with those who have incurred mild traumatic brain injury as a result of a significant blow to the head. The authors saw the need to delineate patients who had suffered whiplash injury from those who also had suffered mild head injury, as defined in the rehabilitation-neurosurgical literature, to attempt to define differences in symptoms, abnormalities, and mechanisms of recovery in these two groups.

Study design: The study design was a retrospective case review.

Setting: The study was conducted at a tertiary-quaternary referral clinic.

Patients: The records of 36 patients were reviewed. Nineteen of these patients suffered a whiplash-associated disorder and 17 suffered a mild head injury as well. These patients were referred for assessment of symptoms persisting for at least 2 years after their injury. Patients were excluded if they had not completed clinical assessment, including electronystagmography (ENG) and computerized dynamic posturography (CDP).

Interventions: A full history, otolaryngologic examination, including assessment of eye movements, corneal reflexes and gait, as well as an investigation, including ENG and CDP, and history taking and detailed recording of related complaints immediately before diagnostic work-up were performed.

Main outcome measures: Symptoms reported by patients who had received either whiplash alone or whiplash plus mild head trauma as defined in the literature were measured. Patients were classified according to type of accident, type of injury suffered, and degree and nature of posturographic abnormalities.

Results: Patients often have similar complaints regardless of whether or not they had suffered a head injury. Although CDP showed abnormalities in both groups, standard ENG assessment, including caloric testing, showed abnormalities only in the head-injured group. The posturographic abnormalities also were analyzed in both groups, and it was found that there was a correlation between the type of posturographic abnormality and the type of injury suffered. Although ENG testing is done routinely, posturography is shown to be more sensitive in picking up abnormalities. In addition, the authors have shown that posturography can delineate the type of injury suffered by exhibiting the compensation strategy used as well as the efficacy of that compensation strategy.

Conclusions: Because ENG abnormalities are limited to patients who have suffered a head injury, the inference is that these two groups of patients have suffered damage at different sites along the balance system pathways, but both of these lesions can lead to similar symptoms. Although the mechanisms of whiplash injury and how they affect the vestibular system are poorly understood, posturography testing is essential in inferring how a patient is recovering by measuring how and how well the patient is overcoming his or her deficit. This has important medical legal implications regarding legitimizing a patient's problem, prognostic factors, as well as rehabilitation plans, measures, and outcomes.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Craniocerebral Trauma / complications*
  • Diagnosis, Computer-Assisted
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Dizziness / diagnosis*
  • Dizziness / etiology*
  • Dizziness / physiopathology
  • Electronystagmography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Posture
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Vestibular Function Tests
  • Whiplash Injuries / complications*