• BREAKING NEWS ABC shows live and on-demand -- Download the WATCH ABC app!

Headrest key to avoiding whiplash

August 18, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
If you've ever been in a rear-end collision, you may have experienced whiplash. It's a painful condition that can often linger months - or even years - after an accident. You might not be able to prevent another driver from crashing into you, but researchers say you can help protect your neck.More than 10 years after her car was rear-ended, Paula Winchel is still suffering.

"I have a lot of intense pain at times where I get headaches," said Paula.

Biomedical engineer and PhD Dr. Brian Stemper has studied whiplash injuries for a decade. His goal is to find the best way to protect people behind the wheel.

"Originally, we thought that the whiplash was a hyperextension injury, where the head rotates backward relative to the thorax, and that leads to a stretching in the soft tissues of the spine," said Dr. Stemper.

Dr. Stemper says extensive crash tests and computer modeling show whiplash happens before the head rotates backward. The key is the relationship between the head and chest.

"The goal in whiplash is to minimize the relative motion between the head and your chest," explains Dr. Stemper.

Research shows the headrest position is crucial. Placed level with the top of your head, and two inches or less from the back of your head, it can prevent whiplash by limiting head movement.

"It's going to minimize the motions, the relative motions between your head and your chest, which will cut down on the forces in the cervical spine in that rear impact," said Dr. Stemper.

Researchers also found in a similar impact, women's cervical spines move more than men's, making women five to 10 percent more susceptible to whiplash.

Researchers are working with automakers to develop head restraints that help prevent whiplash injuries. But he says even if your car doesn't have that new equipment, taking a few minutes to adjust your headrest can keep you safer in a rear end collision.


- Get more L.A. breaking news, weather, traffic and sports
- Have a news tip? Send your tips, video, or pictures