Common Car Accident Injuries: Whiplash, Spinal Cord Injury, and More
Certain types of injuries more typically occur as a result of a car accident, though motor vehicle collisions can be responsible for almost any type of injury, to any area of the body. There are numerous factors influencing whether, how and how badly a person involved in a car accident is injured, including the severity of the collision, whether the injured party was wearing a seatbelt, whether a driver was distracted, speeding or under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and other circumstances surrounding the crash.
In general, there are several types of car accident injuries that occur most frequently, including whiplash, spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, and other head trauma.
Whiplash or neck injuries are common in car accidents because of the sudden acceleration-deceleration force that occurs during a vehicle collision. This type of force can occur during both high-impact and low-impact crashes. Frequently, whiplash occurs following a rear-impact collision, but this type of injury can also result from other types of crashes.
Whiplash injuries involve strain to the nerves, bones, or muscles in the neck. Symptoms of whiplash or neck strain include pain in the neck area, tender and stiff neck muscles, headaches, pins and needles in the extremities, a loss of range of motion in the neck due to pain and limited muscle movements, as well as pain radiating to the back and shoulders.
Whiplash injury alone is rarely fatal, but the symptoms can be debilitating and long-lasting. Many persons involved in car accidents develop delayed whiplash that might not be present immediately following a crash, especially since collisions are stressful situations in which a person’s body produces endorphins, or hormones that act as painkillers.
Whiplash is treatable with pain medications, injections, muscle relaxants, heat and ice therapy, ultrasound treatments, and soft tissue therapy or massage. The use of foam cervical collars is no longer recommended.
Spinal cord injury
Vehicle accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries, accounting for approximately 40 percent of these types of injuries each year. Like whiplash, spinal cord injuries often do not appear until long after a car accident took place, but their impact can be persistent – or even permanent – and can have far-reaching impact on a person’s life.
A spinal cord injury is very serious and involves damage to any portion of the spinal cord, vertebrae, ligaments, or spinal column disks or to the nerves surrounding the spinal canal. These types of injuries can cause long-lasting or even permanent effects to a person’s body below the site of the spinal damage, since the spinal cord is responsible for transmitting signals from a person’s brain to their nerves and muscles.
Symptoms of spinal cord damage depend on the severity of the injury and can range from weakness and pain to paralysis. Other symptoms include:
- Tingling in the hands, fingers, feet or toes
- Poor coordination
- Impaired breathing
- Loss of motion
- The neck or back “stuck” in an odd position
- Difficulty walking or balancing
- Extreme pain in the back or neck
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Sexual dysfunction
Because symptoms of a spinal cord injury may not appear until later, it is important to seek medical attention if a spinal cord injury is suspected, since a delay in treatment can allow any bleeding, swelling, inflammation and fluid accumulation in or near the spinal cord to continue, thus exacerbating the injury.
Every spinal cord injury is different and treatment is unique to a person’s individual circumstances. Treatment options include emergency care, surgery, medications and steroid injections, and immobilizing the spine. Spinal cord damage cannot be reversed, but many treatments are available and research continues to develop new rehabilitative therapies and technologies. Some patients will improve shortly after therapy begins, while others will improve over months or years.
Traumatic brain injury and head trauma
Head injuries are another one of the most common injuries resulting from car accidents and can range in severity from a concussion to a traumatic brain injury. Just like other types of serious automobile accident-related harm, head injuries may not be readily apparent at the scene of the accident or immediately following the crash and symptoms may appear days or weeks later. Damage can occur from the brain being jostled too roughly within the skull, though there may be no visible cuts and bruises from the outside. Head injuries can cause brain cell dysfunction, bruising, torn tissues, or bleeding in the brain, and these types of damage can result in learning disabilities, critical complications or even death.
Because head injuries vary so greatly in severity, the symptoms are also wide-ranging and can include:
- Loss of consciousness
- Being confused or disoriented without losing consciousness
- Loss of memory
- Difficulty concentrating or sleeping
- Severe or worsening headaches
- Loss of balance or coordination
- Nausea or vomiting
- Sensitivity to light or sound
- Fatigue or drowsiness
- Blurred vision
- Slurred speech
- Ringing in the ears
- Bad taste in the mouth
- Weakness or numbness in fingers and toes
- Mood changes
- Anxiety and depression
- Agitation or combativeness
- Convulsions or seizures
- Difficulty or inability to awaken from sleep
- Dilation of one or both pupils
- Clear fluids draining from the nose or ears
Children may have additional or differing symptoms, including uncontrollable crying or the inability to be consoled, extreme irritability, a loss of interest in favorite toys or activities, or a change in eating or sleeping habits.
The treatments available for head injuries depend on the severity of the trauma and the circumstances of the injury. A mild injury might simply require rest and monitoring, while a severe injury may require emergency life-saving care, brain surgery to remove blood clots, relieve pressure in the brain, or repair the skull; coma-inducing drugs, anti-seizure medications, and extensive rehabilitation.
Other car accident injuries
Numerous other types of injuries can result from car accidents, no matter how severe or low-impact a collision may be. These injuries range from psychological injuries resulting from the crash – like post traumatic stress, emotional distress and anxiety – to facial injuries, burns, broken bones, seatbelt injuries, lacerations, injuries by glass, soft tissue damage, internal injuries and bleeding, arthritis, infection and certain jaw disorders.
If you are a loved one has been involved in a car accident, it is important to seek medical care right away, even if you are not immediately aware of any injuries. Click here to read more about auto injuries.
Marion Fisher writes about public advocacy issues related to driver safety and the healthcare industry..