Treating whiplash with myofascial release

When pain-sensitive structures, such as nerves, are entrapped by bound fascia, many people with whiplash complain of sharp nerve pain, loss of range of motion, as well as tingling or numbness radiating from the neck and shoulder into the arms and fingers.

by Maria G. Troia — 

Whiplash is a nonmedical term that describes a set of symptoms usually caused by a rear-end collision, but also can be caused by sports injuries, falls or other movements where a similar rapid extension-flexion motion of the head and neck occurs. These symptoms typically include neck pain, difficulty turning the head and headaches.

Whiplash also can cause various neurological symptoms such as dizziness, vertigo, tinnitus, blurred vision, as well as referred pain and numbness or tingling down the arms and fingers. Some people find whiplash affects their concentration and memory. It is also not uncommon for people with whiplash to complain of insomnia, irritability, depression or fatigue. These symptoms can persist over weeks, months and sometimes even years, becoming chronic. Chronic symptoms can be exacerbated by weather changes or stress, causing acute flare-ups.

Much more than muscles and bones

Fascia is connective tissue that gives the body its soft-tissue structure. It is primarily fluid, and when injured, it tightens, solidifies and binds with up to 2,000 pounds of tensile strength per square inch. This pressure is exerted not just on the neck muscles strained in a whiplash accident, but since fascia is a 3-D web, the pressure is exerted on all structures: bones, nerves, blood vessels and organs. When pain-sensitive structures, such as nerves, are entrapped by bound fascia, many people with whiplash complain of sharp nerve pain, loss of range of motion, as well as tingling or numbness radiating from the neck and shoulder into the arms and fingers.

Another overlooked area in a whiplash injury are the meninges, the layers of fascia that encase the brain. As the meninges tighten, this affects the limbic system, which sits just above the brain stem and is responsible for our emotions, as well as our memory. Thus depressed mood, anxiety, irritability, poor concentration and memory are all affected by bound fascia caused by a whiplash accident. There is a very real, but not often discussed, psycho-emotional component to whiplash that is rooted in the connective tissue.

A new treatment paradigm

In very sensitive patients, traditional forms of therapy can actually exacerbate symptoms of whiplash, especially in the beginning. There are a few reasons for this.

First, most forms of therapy focus on treating the site of pain. Often, this is because insurance companies determine the body parts that can be treated, which are typically the areas that hurt and are inflamed. But that is often not where the problems lie.

What ensues is too much stimulation at the site of pain, which leads to more guarding, inflammation and pain. What needs to occur is a gentle restoration of balance to the structures that are overcompensating due to the injury. In the case of whiplash, that means a good amount of attention must be given to the front, rather than the back of the neck.

Take an even deeper look: the dural tube

Perhaps the most overlooked and most important component in healing a whiplash injury is the dural tube, which is comprised of thick layers of connective tissue that encase the spinal cord like a sock. Together with the meninges, the dural tube forms a sealed system that bathes the brain and spinal cord in fluid. This is called the craniosacral system.

The sudden whiplash movement engages this system and creates the same fascial tightening. Thus, it is not just the neck that is involved in a whiplash, but the whole craniosacral system, the craniosacral rhythm, as well as the brain and spinal cord. This is why whiplash patients often also complain of low-back strain, even though there is no diagnostic evidence of a low-back injury. It all connects from the brain and is anchored all the way down at the sacrum, where there is further binding from the whiplash injury.

Myofascial release and craniosacral therapy can help

The John Barnes Approach to Myofascial Release and craniosacral therapy correct these fascial restrictions in the neck, dural tube and throughout the body, easing the solidification and binding of the connective tissue throughout. Unlike the old style of myofascial release, which is painful, rough and forces the connective tissue, the John Barnes Approach is gentle and waits until the body feels safe enough to allow the connective tissue to release.

This is true body-mind work and requires a period of at least 90 seconds of light, sustained pressure to each area before a release can occur. This process can never be forced. It takes time, and the patient must be involved, focusing on the breath and what his body is feeling. What ensues is a lasting release where the fascia unwinds and unbinds, not just at the superficial layers, but at the deepest layers, to give lasting results. There is no further pain or guarding with this method because nothing is forced.

It is important to note that it is never too late to address a whiplash injury, although it takes a shorter course of therapy when the injury is recent. Those suffering from the more chronic effects of a whiplash injury still respond quite well to the combined approaches of John Barnes Myofascial Release and craniosacral therapy. It might take them a little longer, but they will receive lasting results, decreased pain and increased range of motion.


Maria G. Troia, MSEd, LMT, NCTMB, CH is trained in the John Barnes Approach to Myofascial Release and AMMA Therapy® and is certified by the Bach Foundation. She is a NCBTMB continuing education provider and owner of East-West Holistic Healing Arts in Old Town Scottsdale, Ariz. 480-313-6260 or

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 30, Number 2, April/May 2011.

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