Earliest Identification of Patients at Risk for Chronic Pain, Disability from Whiplash

PAINWeek 2013 faculty member James Elliott, PT, PhD, has published results from new research undertaken at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine on the use of specialized MRI imaging to predict the incidence of chronic pain and disability from whiplash injuries. The study findings were published March 17 in the journal Spine. The researchers report the ability to identify, within the first 2 weeks of the injury, which patients will proceed to develop chronic pain, disability, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This early identification could facilitate faster and more specialized treatment.

The advanced MRI technique measures the fat/water ratio in the neck muscles. The study team found that, in patients who went on to develop chronic pain and PTSD, the imaging revealed large amounts of fat infiltrating the patients' neck muscles, indicating rapid atrophy. The presence of fat in the muscle does not appear to be related to a person's body size or shape. Routine imaging does not reveal this fat infiltration in individuals with whiplash injuries. The findings may indicate the importance of changing standard imaging protocols to identify these individuals early and start accelerated treatment.

Read a news story about the research here.

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