Context: Whiplash type injuries resulting from a rear end motor vehicle accident (REMVA) are thought to be caused by excessive loading and displacement of structural components of the cervical spine. On impact, the seat propels the driver’s torso forward relative to the head, resulting in forced flexion of the occipitoatlantal (OA) joint, accompanied by forced stretching of the rectus capitis posterior minor (RCPm) muscles. Flexion of the OA joint and stretching of the RCPm muscles continues to increase until the vehicle’s headrest strikes the back of the driver’s head. It is known that externally applied forces that attempt to move the OA joint beyond its anatomic barrier can result in fracture, dislocation, or soft tissue damage to its structural components. However, the magnitude of headrest backset, defined as the distance between the driver’s head and the vehicle’s headrest, that would result in RCPm muscles being stretched to a length that would put them at risk for a muscle strain injury is unknown.
Objectives: To quantify the relationships among flexion of the OA joint, RCPm muscle stretch, and backset, and to quantify the biomechanical response of RCPm muscles to increasing levels of axial load due to stretching.
Methods: Unembalmed head and neck specimens from three White females aged 85, 63, and 70 years were obtained from the Anatomical Services Division at the University of Maryland. Donors had provided written consent allowing use of their body for research purposes. Using an analytic model of the OA joint, the relationships between flexion of the OA joint and RCPm muscle stretch as a function of backset were estimated. RCPm muscles were removed from the cadavers and forcibly stretched using a servomechanism controlled hydraulic testing machine to quantify the load/displacement properties. After testing, the tissues were sectioned, mounted, and stained using Masson’s trichrome to selectively stain muscle fibers red and collagen blue.
Results: Forced flexion of the OA joint was seen to be directly related to the magnitude of headrest backset. For values of backset greater than 7.2 cm, biomechanical testing of the RCPm muscles revealed that strain injuries ranged from the tearing of a few muscle fibers to complete rupture of the muscle and separation of the tendon at the posterior process of C1.
Conclusions: Results showed that headrest backset at the time of vehicle impact is an important factor in estimating the risk of muscle strain injury to RCPm muscles. Muscle strain injury would be expected to impact the functional relationship between the RCPm muscles and the pain sensitive spinal dura. Physicians should be alert to the possibility that cervicogenic pain patients who have experienced whiplash associated with REMVA may show clinically relevant structural damage to the RCPm muscles on MRI.