Pain-catastrophizing and fear-avoidance beliefs as mediators between post-traumatic stress symptoms and pain following whiplash injury – A prospective cohort study

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Knowledge about the course of recovery after whiplash injury is important. Most valuable is identification of prognostic factors that may be reversed by intervention. The mutual maintenance model outlines how post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) and pain may be mutually maintained by attention bias, fear, negative affect and avoidance behaviours. In a similar vein, the fear-avoidance model describes how pain-catastrophizing (PCS), fear-avoidance beliefs (FA) and depression may result in persistent pain. These mechanisms still need to be investigated longitudinally in a whiplash cohort.


A longitudinal cohort design was used to assess patients for pain intensity and psychological distress after whiplash injury. Consecutive patients were all contacted within 3 weeks after their whiplash injury (n = 198). Follow-up questionnaires were sent 3 and 6 months post-injury. Latent Growth Mixture Modelling was used to identify distinct trajectories of recovery from pain.


Five distinct trajectories were identified. Six months post-injury, 64.6% could be classified as recovered and 35.4% as non-recovered. The non-recovered (the medium stable, high stable and very high stable trajectories) displayed significantly higher levels of PTSS, PCS, FA and depression at all time points compared to the recovered trajectories. Importantly, PCS and FA mediated the effect of PTSS on pain intensity.


The present study adds important knowledge about the development of psychological distress and pain after whiplash injury. The finding, that PCS and FA mediated the effect of PTSS on pain intensity is a novel finding with important implications for prevention and management of whiplash-associated disorders.

What does this study add?:

The study confirms the mechanisms as outlined in the fear-avoidance model and the mutual maintenance model.

What does this study add?:

The study adds important knowledge of pain-catastrophizing and fear-avoidance beliefs as mediating mechanisms in the effect of post-traumatic stress on pain intensity. Hence, cognitive behavioural techniques targeting avoidance behaviour and catastrophizing may be beneficial preventing the development of chronic pain.

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