Tiger Woods’ neck injury….could it be related to whiplash?

Tiger Woods’ neck injury….could it be related to whiplash?

I assessed and treated a 35year old male patient last week for acute left sided neck pain. On questioning him on what he thought had triggered his pain, he told me he had suffered a whiplash injury following a car accident 5 months ago. His pain took about 6 weeks to fully settle down. He decided to take a break from golf for 4-5 months with the hope of not flaring up his neck pain. However, the following day after returning to golf he woke up with severe left sided neck pain and could barely rotate or extend his neck, hence the physio appointment.

After completing the assessment and treatment he was very keen to know my diagnosis of his problem.

I diagnosed ‘facet joint inflammation’ and demonstrated to him on the model of the spine what this was, explained to him possible causes and his likely prognosis and gave him advice on how best to manage the condition. He seemed very keen on knowing more about ‘facet joint’ injury, and as I thought, he went away and researched it on the net.

He came back this week and after telling me he was 90% better, he said he had looked it up and he had got the same injury as Tiger Woods. This prompted me to search ‘Tigers neck injury’ on line. There were hundreds of sites and masses of information on his injury causing him to pull out of The Players Championship in May 2010. An MRI scan of his neck had shown the cause of his pain to be an inflamed facet joint. Many sites were linking it to the whiplash he had suffered from his recent car crash, although Woods himself stated there was ‘absolutely zero connection’!! Although there isn’t 100% certainty that his accident did have any influence on his recent neck injury, I don’t see how he can be so adamant in stating there was ‘zero connection’. Read further to find out why!

What are facet joints?
Facet joints are made up from the back of the vertebrae (bones of spine). There is a pair of facet joints at the back of each vertebra and this is where the neck movement comes from.

Symptoms of facet joint problems in the neck (cervical facet joints):
The most common symptoms of cervical facet joint problems are pain in the neck and difficulty moving the neck. Other symptoms that may be present are headaches, shoulder/arm pain and pins and needles.

Causes of facet joint pain:
There are several possible causes of pain, the most common being normal ‘wear and tear’ or degenerative changes of the joints. This is when the cartilage that covers the ends of the joints wears thin. If this happens the two ends of the bones will rub and cause pain. The same principle applies to pain that is felt in an osteoarthritic (wear and tear type arthritis) hip or knee joint.

Other common causes of pain from facet joints are as a result of trauma ie: whiplash, poor postures, disc degeneration, any of these can ultimately cause the facet joints to become inflamed which will then cause pain.

There is much evidence to show that an inflamed facet joint is a common byproduct of whiplash. Research states that ‘The cervical facet joint is the most common source of chronic neck pain after whiplash.’ (The Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 2007).

Many patients who have suffered whiplash will also claim that once all the initial acute pain and stiffness of whiplash has settled further pain at a later stage is then evident after returning to normal physical activities such as lifting, gardening, decorating….or like my patient this week….hitting golf balls. So getting back to Tiger, maybe his recent episode of neck pain caused by facet joint inflammation was in some way linked with his car crash after all!….Tiger himself doesn’t like to think so!!

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