Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1123:
WHIPLASH

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1123.

Today, we go looking for whiplash. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

New York Times writer Denise Grady tells of a study recently done in Lithuania. Under Communist rule, Lithuanian drivers didn't carry personal insurance. Nor had the country developed any tradition of people suing one another. Of course Lithuanian drivers, like everyone else, suffer rear-end collisions. So a Norwegian doctor, Harald Schrader, headed a team of seven Lithuanian and Norwegian doctors to study whiplash in Lithuania.

The team interviewed 202 people who'd been rear-ended, and 202 more people -- same ages, same town -- who had not. They expected some of those who'd been struck to suffer lingering effects. What they finally did find was astonishing: no one in the study reported after-effects that were disabling -- or even persistent.

Whiplash is an injury to the upper spinal column. The term comes from a scenario in which the head is first thrown back by the collision; then it "whiplashes" forward, squeezing vertebrae against the soft tissue surrounding them.

From time to time, we all suffer whiplash as serious as that in most rear-end collisions. It occurs in the normal bumping and tripping of everyday life -- in coughing, sneezing, running downstairs, plopping into a chair, or playing sports.

One-sixth of the Lithuanians who'd been hit could recall short-term neck pain immediately afterward. But none -- not any -- traced chronic long-term neck or head problems to their collision. The percentage of people reporting general neck-pain or headache problems was roughly the same in both groups.

One way or another, many Lithuanians (who knew little of the fine art of lawsuit) said to Schrader, Headaches! Why don't you ask why I haven't fixed my bumper, two years later?

Schrader's own country, Norway, with 4.2 million people, has an organization of 70,000 people who claim to suffer from whiplash and are claiming, or trying to claim, compensation for it. That comes to nearly two percent of the Norwegian population.

Of course inertial head injuries can't be taken lightly. The first thing new parents learn is to support their baby's oversized head. Parents have killed young children by simply shaking them in anger. Whiplash is real enough. It's just that the average rear-end auto accident seems unlikely to do long-term damage.

Yet over half of American auto injury claims report back and neck sprains. Before we get to the merely dubious claims, the National Insurance Crime Bureau estimates that a sixth of those are patently fraudulent. They alone cost you and me a hundred dollars a year on each car we insure.

In the end, Schrader published the findings. And when he did, a member of the Norwegian organization of whiplash patients -- in perfect counterpoint -- threatened to sue him!

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Grady, D., In One Country, Chronic Whiplash is Uncompensated (and Unknown). The New York Times MEDICAL SCIENCE, Tue., May 7, 1996.

Grady's article was based on a medical article:

Schrader, H., Natural Evolution of Late Whiplash Syndrome Outside the Medico-Legal Context. The Lancet, Vol. 347, May 4, 1996, pp. 1207-1211.

I'm grateful to Elona Vaisnys at Yale University for correcting errors in the original broadcast version of this episode and providing additional information.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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