Is whiplash really a myth?

A debate has erupted over the existence of an injury often linked to motor insurance claims...

Whiplash is nothing but a gravy train for medics, victims and lawyers, according to a former Irish neurosurgeon.

Dr Charles Marks, who lectures at UCC,  has penned an opinion piece in The Irish Times in which he claims that the so-called spinal trauma is just a "myth" to make money.

Whiplash currently accounts for 80% of motor injury claims, but Dr Marks says permanent forms are "non-existent".

However, Dr Marks' theory has now come in for criticism from other medical professionals.

Dr Colin Doherty, a consulting neurologist at St James' Hospital and senior lecturer at Trinity College, is one such dissenting voice. Speaking to Newstalk Breakfast this morning, he called the article "a veritable Jeremiad lamentation" which portrayed victims as "people on the make".

Dr Doherty said:

"I wish it was so simple. I wish it was a case that this thing didn't exist, patients don't have pains...

"There is obviously a legal process behind compensation but, largely, most patients who have symptoms related to accidents are actually attending their GPs. So they're attending their regular doctors and getting prescribed medication for their condition.

"They are suffering pain and in no way are doctors trying to create this syndrome. They're usually desperately searching for multi-disciplinary teams to look after patients. It's a very difficult problem." 

Exaggerated insurance claims

An AIG Ireland survey revealed in November that one in five Irish people know someone who has made an exaggerated insurance claim.

Not only that, 15% of people are aware of someone falsifying information for their claim.  

The study of 1,000 people also showed that close to 80% think that the average whiplash compensation of €15,000 should be far lower. A further 80% agreed that premiums were directly affected by false claims.

Aviva Insurance recently informed its customers that whiplash claims were adding €130 to the cost of the average motor premium.

'Grain of truth'

"That's not to say that there's not some grain of truth there about the growth of compensation," Dr Doherty said of a situation where Irish motor premiums have been spiralling in recent years.

"There seems to be no reason why we should be different from other Western European countries. I think there is a need to review this.

"My own experience is that the length of the procedure in processing compensation claims is a terrible bind that patients get into and they're often out of work, they're unable to go back to work, they're suffering symptoms and it takes years sometimes to process these claims."

Dr Marks had argued that, while a "tiny proportion of collision victims may sustain a slipped disc in the spine", all whiplash injuries were minor and moderate, with a permanent condition being "non-existent".

"I don't know how permanent whiplash is but that's no part of his initial complaint," Dr Doherty countered. "He's talking about the compensation process and that usually takes several years.

"And then once it's over, people like him don't see patients anymore; they're seen by their GPs. If patients have long-term symptoms related to their accident, that's nothing to do with the compensation problem.

"They're living with disability then.  There's a bit of a confused message there.

'They are suffering'

"Forget about the permanent whiplash point," Dr Doherty concluded. "What is going on that patients have prolonged symptoms from an injury that they receive in a car accident? And why is it that other countries don't have the same problem?

"I think our immediate European neighbours, there is only minor differences really in the compensation...

"More telling was looking at places like Lithuania where he said there's no compensation culture at all in relation to neck injuries.

"I think that's very interesting and it speaks to this phenomenon of bias in relation to medical symptoms. So I wish we understood this better.

"A teacher of mine used to say for every patient you saw in front of you, there's probably six more patients out in the community who have worse or similar symptoms that are not coming to see a doctor.

"The fact is that people suffer from symptoms that may be unexplained, that's accepted – but nevertheless they are suffering, and that's the key point."