Disturbances of the pain system after whiplash injury

9 Apr 2018

The human pain system is a complex network of neural pathways and centres that work together to protect the body. Pain is the sensation that is experienced when there is damage to the body. Pain alerts the individual that damage has been sustained so that the injured individual can either take action to avoid further injury, or care for the injured part of the body. As the body repairs itself, the experience of pain typically subsides and then disappears entirely.

Research led by Professor Michele Sterling and her colleagues at Recover, has shown that whiplash injury can disrupt the normal functioning of the pain system. Research conducted by Professor Sterling’s team has shown that some individuals with whiplash injuries become hypersensitive to stimulation following whiplash injury.

In several studies, Professor Sterling and her colleagues applied thermal electrodes to the cervical (neck) spine of individuals with whiplash injuries. The temperature of the electrodes could be controlled to gradually create the sensation of heat or cold. As the temperature of the electrodes was varied, the individuals who took part in the study were asked to indicate when they felt either the hot or cold sensation. The results of the study show that individuals with whiplash injuries were more sensitive to cold temperature. The more sensitive individuals were to cold, the more pain they seemed to experience and they recovered from their injury at a slower rate.

Professor Sterling explained that little is known about why some individuals with whiplash injuries become hypersensitive to stimulation. She indicated that it is possible, that the normal functioning of the pain system might be disrupted in some individuals following a whiplash injury. Disrupted functioning of the pain system can lead to more intense and persistent pain symptoms. According to Professor Sterling, identifying the factors that lead to slow recovery is a necessary first step in the development of new treatments for whiplash injury. Professor Sterling explained that research on cold sensitivity following whiplash injury might one day lead to treatments that can help accelerate the recovery process.



Sterling, M., Jull, G., Vicenzino, B., Kenardy, J., 2003a. Sensory hypersensitivity occurs soon after whiplash injury and is associated with poor recovery. Pain 104, 509–517.

Sterling, M., Jull, G., Vicenzino, B., Kenardy, J., Darnell, R., 2005. Physical and psychological factors predict outcome following whiplash injury. Pain 114, 141–148.