Healing Whiplashes & Chronic Neck Pain

I peeled my face off the airbag to a gun powdery dust, smoke, and the scent of burning oil. A pain pierced the hinge of my jaw. My head and chest felt as if they were hit by a boxer’s one-two punch. Breathing was nearly impossible as my chest felt like crackling glass with each inhale. My eyes fluttered open, and I squinted as I tried to see through the smoke. I had no idea where I was or how long I had been there.

I glanced to my right, barely seeing my friend in the passenger seat. A titanic wave of fear overcame me, and I yelled to her, “we’ve got to get out of here!” I flung open the car door and stepped out to swerving cars at high speed. I realized I was smack in the middle of the freeway, and in the darkness of night, I saw flashes of headlights coming straight at me. One truck’s side view mirror nearly flattened me, but I leaned back, and it brushed my sleeve. A thousand life events from birth till now flashed in my mind in seconds— two near-death experiences in minutes. 

My head was spinning.

I pressed my back against the car and slid around the back bumper, barely breathing. I grabbed my friend’s arm as we dodged a stream of oncoming headlights. We came to the guard rail and collapsed onto the dirt. I tried to sit up against the railing, but the sharp pain in my jaw and neck was excruciating. It made me nauseous. I leaned over and lay down with the weeds. It was freezing cold and dark. My body shook, my teeth chattered, making my jaw feel like a nail was being driven into it. Waiting for the paramedics to arrive felt like an eternity. 

I heard the sirens, so they were getting close. I thought about their standard procedure for working with whiplash. They put you in the neck brace, traction your neck straight, and tuck your chin down to keep the neck elongated and the curve flat. Next, they strap your forehead to the board so you cannot move. I knew from researching neck pain that this may weaken and further strain the tendons, ligaments, and muscles of the neck when it is most vulnerable, right after the accident.

Then, I flashed to what John Friend said in a recent yoga therapy workshop. He said that if someone is in a car accident, you could help them to realign and set their neck. What a radical statement! That seemed tricky and potentially dangerous. However, I had practiced this in certain yoga poses in the workshop and my practice. Thankfully, I had been working with this for years, and now was the time to put my knowledge to the test. In past injuries, I have often served as my guinea pig, so here is another opportunity.

Realigning my neck.

I reached for my neck, worked the muscles, manipulated the curve, and set the alignment of my neck. The paramedics arrived, and they quickly started doing their neck drill. Before my forehead was strapped to the board, I did a subtle neck adjustment internally, which set the curve. Then, my head was pinned to the board for over 2 hours. At the ER, after a CAT scan, I was diagnosed with a cracked sternum, concussion, and severe whiplash.

I came home the next day and began a self-directed rehabilitation program. It included a rhythmic schedule of icing, resting, gentle heat, micro-movements, breathwork, and healing meditations. I had home visits from a trusted chiropractor. Later, I received ten cranial sacral sessions with a top practitioner who helped release the trauma and compensation patterns. I also received fantastic massages that reduced scar tissue and released muscle tension. Then, more technical yoga therapy included strengthening, stretching, and aligning techniques. I was not only healing from this accident but two previous whiplashes and a history of neck issues that started in my 20s.

One morning in my 20s, I was waking up for work and reached for my alarm clock. A sudden sharp pain went down my neck and spine. The pain was so severe I almost vomited and passed out at the same time. I laid back down quickly. My body froze because I was scared the pain would come back if I moved my head up from the pillow again. With my partner’s help, pain meditation, and a full day of rest, I woke up the next morning able to get in to see the doctor. The X-rays showed a pinched nerve, a flattened cervical curve with two degenerated disks. The doctor said casually that I had the neck of a 70-year-old. I did not take that lightly; this was my body and I was in pain. This is where yoga entered my life, and the practice has saved me from chronic neck pain. 

Healing is not a straight line.  

Healing is often two steps forward and one step back. We make progress, then push it too far and slide back. We should expect this in our healing practice rather than be surprised. I also learned that the body goes through many stages of healing after intense injuries. Some of the stages I experienced were swelling, settling, rebuilding, repairing, and realigning. All the steps needed slightly different yoga techniques to be effective. I also noticed that if I were even somewhat haphazard in my alignment, I would have pain. Pain taught me a great deal, and it was a dedicated teacher. The precise placement of the bones in my body made all the difference. 

There are milestones in healing. 

About a year after the freeway accident, I had a tremendous breakthrough in my yoga practice. After years of being unable to do head-down inversions, I could do a full headstand in the middle of the room and hold it for a minute with good alignment. And after that day, many inversions found their way back into my practice. (Note: I do not do regular headstands now. This was a mile marker that showed my healing had worked! However, weight-bearing headstands are not recommended to anyone over 40 with neck issues)

A decade later. 

I am older and wiser, yet I still get minor tweaks in my neck. Usually, it is a lack of alignment or awareness or a poor night’s sleep! However, I have the yoga therapy tools to realign and rebalance my neck so I do not have to hold myself back. I want to do what I love and not live a less-than-full life just because of neck pain. I feel liberated in knowing that I can heal myself.

I thank all my teachers and the profound teacher called pain. My body gives me feedback and speaks to me when it needs attention. I have learned to listen, be curious, seek help, and be intensely present with what is happening inside, all because of the helpful visitor called pain. I have a deep trust in the realization that the body wants to and knows how to align and heal itself if given the right tools, guidance, and presence.

Poses that helped in my healing.

There is much more, reach out to schedule a private session, attend a workshop or class. Blessings on your healing,
Sienna Smith C-IAYT, E-RYT, CAPP

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