Daniel Lewis was five years old when he had his first car crash.
He was in his uncle’s car, a Ford Cortina. Mr Lewis laughs ruefully as he describes what happened.
“I went through the windscreen. He hit the kerb and I wasn’t belted in,” he says.
It was the 1970s.
Since then Mr Lewis has been in 11 more car crashes, nine of them as a passenger.
You can imagine the damage they’ve caused.
By the age of 44, Mr Lewis’s neck movement was severely limited, he had constant clicking when he moves his skull, and he suffered debilitating headaches, a classic symptom associated with whiplash.
Meanwhile, Gold Coast resident Samirah Abdullah has only had one crash — but sometimes that’s all it takes.
She was hit from behind in her car, in an 80 kilometre per hour zone.
The force of the impact lifted Ms Abdullah’s legs onto the dashboard and tore her seat from its mountings. She was in and out of consciousness.
When the ambulance arrived, they had to wait while she was cut out of her vehicle.
Mr Lewis and Ms Abdullah’s whiplash injuries were treated medically, with rest and pain medication and through consulting a physiotherapist with movement, exercises and massage.
But months later, the pain and the headaches remained.
‘The more we talked … it made it better’
According to Michele Sterling of the University of Queensland’s RECOVER Injury Research Centre, almost half of the people who experience whiplash from a road traffic crash will never fully recover.
“One of the things that seems to be important as to whether people recover well or not, is there level of stress symptoms after the accident,” Professor Sterling says.
She and her research team at UQ decided to test a different approach.
They set up a pilot study in which participants received not only six weeks of free physiotherapy, but in an Australian first, 10 weeks of free psychological treatment as well.
Luckily, both Ms Abdullah and Mr Lewis saw the call for volunteers, because, as they told RN Life Matters, the process was transformative.
“The psychologist did a lot of talking about the event, and I felt really uncomfortable in the beginning,” Ms Abdullah says.
Until then, every time she’d approached the spot where the crash occurred her mouth would go dry, and she’d be obsessively checking her rear-view mirror.
Ms Abdullah was given strategies for managing both her physical pain and mental anguish, and it was only then she realised she’d been hunching her shoulders as a stress response every time she got behind the wheel of her car.
“I wasn’t able to have someone talk in the car when I was driving, and not even have music. This is how stressed I used to get,” she says.
Days before speaking to Life Matters, Ms Abdullah was forced to use her post-whiplash strategies, when she was rear-ended a second time.
“I was able to not feel any of those things. I am feeling perfectly fine,” she says, proudly.
Talking through each crash
For Mr Lewis, the mental and physical damage from being in 12 car crashes, nine as a passenger, was always going to be tough to reconcile.
“I was always an anxious, reluctant passenger,” he says.
“I couldn’t trust the person behind the wheel. If certain cars came into my peripheral vision where I’d had accidents I’d flinch.
“I’d sweat, get hot flushes.”
As far as Mr Lewis was concerned, he took part in this pilot research to help others.
The sessions with a psychologist allowed him to revisit every crash, dating back to his first at the age of five.
“It unlocked something … speaking out and talking about these accidents, and riding the wave so to speak,” he says.
“I just felt a bit lighter, and when I went through to the physio I seemed to make more gains.”
Larger study now required
Mr Lewis says he’s regained up to 95 per cent of the movement in his neck, up from 50, and the pain has disappeared. The clicking has diminished too.
And Ms Abdullah says the treatment has allowed her to return to work.
“If I hadn’t had the treatment I wouldn’t even be in the car,” she says.
The results from the pilot project have spurred Professor Sterling to mount a larger study.
And she’s been calling for more eligible whiplash volunteers from south-east Queensland who meet the criteria.
Right now, roughly 25,000 Australians suffer a whiplash injury annually, costing the health system almost $1 billion.
Professor Sterling believes incorporating counselling into whiplash recovery could be cost-effective as well.
“You can hear from Daniel’s and Samirah’s stories for how long they’d had problems, and had gone to professionals, without learning any skills to deal with the stress and the driving,” she says.