A study has found 100% of Irish whiplash patients attending a spine specialist pursued lawsuits — but the visits almost always stopped once the legal action was settled.
The researchers examined all the whiplash cases attending a specialist spine surgeon in Ireland over a 15-year period. The NUI Galway study found the visits to the specialist stopped in almost all cases when the legal action was completed.
“Of note, despite the reported severity of whiplash symptoms, only a small proportion of patients returned for a further consultation once their litigation settled,” the authors said.
Patients were reviewed in the clinic twice on average during the litigation process with medico-legal reports requested on each occasion – only 3% of patients were seen in the clinic after receiving the last solicitor’s letter.
“This suggests either that their symptoms may be related to the legal process and resolve once complete or that they see no further benefit in presenting to a specialist spine practice, given that the majority were managed conservatively,” the study said.
The researchers from the School of Medicine, National University of Ireland Galway, and Galway University Hospital added that the patients may have continued to attend primary care including physiotherapy or pain specialists for their ongoing pain concerns.
The study concluded that whiplash — defined as soft tissue injuries to the cervical spine after a road traffic accident — poses a “significant societal economic burden in Ireland”.
The soft tissue injury has associated symptoms which can include neck pain and stiffness, headaches, interscapular pain, upper limb pain, paraesthesia, and weakness.
The paper, which has just been published in the Irish Journal of Medical Science, examined the private medical records of 301 patients who had attended a specialist spine surgeon from 1996 to 2011 with potential soft tissue injuries following a road traffic accident.
“All were ultimately involved in litigation,” said the study. Nearly six out of 10 — 58% — had associated back pain, 93% reported chronic neck pain; only four received surgical intervention.
The remainder were managed conservatively with physiotherapy, simple analgesics as required such as Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and heat and cold packs. The study headed by Eva McCabe found data on seatbelt use for 207 patients — 88% reported using a seatbelt at the time of the accident while 12% did not.
Eighteen patients stated that they quit their jobs as a result of the accident and six said they changed roles. The study found an “an inextricable link between whiplash-associated disorders and litigation”.
Data from the Personal Injuries Assessment Board reveals that minor whiplash injuries in recent years were awarded up to €15,700, while severe and permanent whiplash injuries resulting in significant disability amounted to €44,600-€77,900.