The Perils of Sneezing

When saying "achoo" might hurt you.

ByABC News
December 15, 2008, 6:10 PM

Dec. 22, 2008— -- It might have been just another summer day at the office. But when Erina Ramly of Chestnut Hill, Mass., felt a tickle in her nose as she headed to the cubicle of a co-worker, she did not imagine that what happened next would lead to excruciating pain.

She let out a sneeze but soon afterward noticed that she couldn't turn her neck to the left or right.

As the pain in her neck worsened, Ramly went to see her doctor. Much to her surprise, she found out she had whiplash. She was given a neck brace to wear and some muscle relaxants for the pain.

In all likelihood, the sudden movement of the sneeze aggravated Ramly's neck muscles, which may have been tight to begin with because her back was feeling stiff.

"It felt really embarrassing, when I had to tell people the story," Ramly said. "You don't expect to get whiplash from sneezing." But her physician told her he had seen it before, and another friend confided that it had happened to her as well.

Although the chances of hurting yourself while sneezing are extremely low, it can and does happen.

And it can happen to the fittest of us. Not one, but two forceful sneezes sent baseball slugger Sammy Sosa's back into spasm right before a game in 2004. Shortly thereafter, the Chicago Cubs outfielder was placed on the disabled list with a sprained ligament in his lower back.

Sneezing is a quick, sudden motion that can aggravate an underlying problem, like neck or back discomfort, explained Dr. Eric Holbrook, co-director of the sinus center at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. Given the right set of circumstances, a sneeze has the potential to strain a muscle or pull a ligament.

Traffic fatalities and accidents have also occurred when drivers have turned their head away to sneeze for a split second or have had a sneezing fit.

In November, for example, a Boston man lost control of his pickup truck on a curvy stretch of road adjacent to the Charles River after he reportedly sneezed while behind the wheel. The driver was not hurt during the incident but his vehicle ended up partially submerged in the river.

Other consequences of sneezing don't necessarily lead to injury, but they can be embarrassing. For women who have incontinence, part of the pressure generated during a sneeze might transmit that pressure to the bladder, which may or may not hold, said Dr. Erin O'Brien, a sinus specialist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. This can also happen with a strong sneeze during pregnancy.

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Since the average person tends to sneeze roughly 200 times a year, the odds are low of any harm, noted Dr. Michael Benninger, chairman of the head and neck institute at the Cleveland Clinic. "The greatest risk from sneezing is contagiousness, not personal injury," he said.