Can a Whiplash Injury Actually Be an Undiagnosed Traumatic Brain Injury?

Can a Whiplash Injury Actually Be an Undiagnosed Traumatic Brain Injury?In order to determine how a whiplash injury can become a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), it is important to first understand what a whiplash injury is. A whiplash injury is a neck injury that is caused by a forceful and rapid back and forth movement of the neck (similar to cracking of a whip, hence the term, whiplash). The impact may result in bony or soft-tissue injuries, which in turn may lead to a variety of clinical symptoms called Whiplash-Associated Disorders. This type of injury subjects the cervical spine to extreme forces and commonly leads to the following symptoms:

  • neck pain/stiffness
  • loss of range of motion in the neck
  • headaches, most often starting at the base of the skull
  • tenderness or pain in the shoulder, upper back or arms
  • tingling or numbness in the arms
  • fatigue
  • dizziness

Whiplash symptoms may start immediately after the accident, or in some cases can take about 24 hours to develop. Having previous whiplash injuries, old age, or existing lower back or neck pain can all factor into longer recovery times. A whiplash injury typically heals within 3 months, but sometimes symptoms can become chronic and last much longer. This brings us to the possibility that the symptoms you may be experiencing may actually be caused by an undiagnosed TBI.

A TBI may occur when force is applied to the brain, either through a direct impact to the head or the skulls rapid acceleration and deceleration, similar to that which occurs during a whiplash injury. A TBI can occur in even minor accidents and can result in more serious long-term medical conditions. There is a broad range of severity when diagnosing a traumatic brain injury. Not all traumatic brain injuries are classified the same. There are three different types of brain injuries: mild, moderate, and severe. These classifications depend on the severity of the damage as well as the symptoms the patient is experiencing, such as loss of consciousness or affected speech.

Because the symptoms and cause of the TBI are so similar to those of whiplash, there is a real danger that the doctor who is examining the victim will fail to detect the TBI entirely. In fact, mild traumatic brain injuries (mTBI) and concussions can often be the hardest to treat, since these injuries have the least detectable symptoms and may be misdiagnosed for something less severe.

Recent studies examining the relationship between a whiplash injury and a TBI have shown that a whiplash injury can increase the risk for a long-term TBI because these injuries go undiagnosed and therefore untreated.

Individuals suffering from a traumatic brain injury may experience the following symptoms:

  • Increased sensitivity to sound
  • Scattered or disorganized communication skills
  • Slowed or impaired reaction time
  • Psychosocial problems
  • Diminished or reduced IQ

A misdiagnosis can have a seriously negative impact on the progress of a patient who may be experiencing long-term cognitive impairment. To diagnose a TBI, health care providers may use one or more tests that assess a person’s physical injuries, brain and nerve functioning, as well as their level of consciousness. Tests that doctors should conduct include the following:

  • Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS)
    • The GCS measures a person’s functioning in three areas:
      • Ability to speak
      • Ability to open eyes
      • Ability to move limbs
    • A health care provider rates a person’s responses in these categories and calculates a total score. A score of 13 or higher indicates a mild TBI, 9 through 12 indicates a moderate TBI, and 8 or below indicates severe TBI.
  • Measurements for Level of TBI
    • A TBI is considered mild if:
      • The person was not unconscious or was unconscious for less than 30 minutes
      • Memory loss lasted less than 24 hours
      • The GCS was 13 to 15
    • A TBI is considered moderate if
      • The person was unconscious for more than 30 minutes and up to 24 hours.
      • Memory loss lasted anywhere from 24 hours to 7 days.
      • The GCS was 9 to 12
    • TBI is considered severe if:
      • The person was unconscious for more than 24 hours.
      • Memory loss lasted more than 7 days.
      • The GCS was 8 or lower.
    • Speech and Language Tests
      • A speech-language pathologist completes a formal evaluation of speech and language skills, including an oral motor evaluation of the strength and coordination of the muscles that control speech, understanding and use of grammar and vocabulary, as well as reading and writing.
    • Cognition and Neuropsychological Tests
      • Neuropsychological assessments are often used to obtain information about cognitive capabilities such as the processes of thinking, reasoning, problem-solving, information processing, and memory.
    • Imaging Tests
      • Health care providers may also use tests that take images of a person’s brain, these include but are not limited to:
        • Computerized Tomography (CT). A CT or (“cat”) scan takes X-rays from many angles to create a complete picture. It can quickly show bleeding in the brain, bruised brain tissue, and other damage.
        • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). MRI uses magnets and radio waves to produce more detailed images than CT scans. An MRI typically is not used as part of an initial TBI assessment because it takes too long to complete.
        • Intracranial Pressure (ICP) Monitoring. Sometimes, swelling of the brain from a TBI can increase pressure inside the skull. The pressure can cause additional damages to the brain. A health care provider may insert a probe through the skull to monitor this swelling. In some cases, a shunt or drain is placed into the skull to relieve ICP
      • Electroencephalogram (EEG) and Electromyogram and Nerve Condition Studies (EMG/NCV)
        • EEG records the electrical activity of the brain, whereas EMG/NCV records the electrical activity of muscles and nerves.

Because A TBI can cause physical, cognitive, emotional, communicative, and psychological impairments, it may require years of costly rehabilitation and assistance to treat. It is important, as a victim of a whiplash injury to advise your doctor to do all the tests that are necessary to help determine whether or not you have suffered from a traumatic brain injury.


Mirian Law Firm employs some of the most reliable and knowledgeable brain injury lawyers in Toronto and the GTA. We can help you understand your legal rights and put together a strong legal case on your behalf.

In many cases, a lawsuit or settlement may be needed to compensate a victim for injuries caused by the negligence or recklessness of another. If you are the victim of an accident, contact us and find out how we can help you get the compensation you deserve. Book your free assessment today!