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According to the National highway Traffic Safety Association, there were 2.4 million injuries involving a motor vehicle in 2012.1 With so many injured victims, there are just as many different circumstances surrounding those accidents. Even so, there are some injuries which are more common than others.
Some injuries resolve on their own within a few days of the accident. Some injuries might take months to heal, and yet others may take years. In worst case scenarios, the injuries you suffer in a car accident will never heal and will result in a permanent condition or worse, disability.
While each accident is unique, some factors will influence what type of injury you suffer. Keep in mind however, there is no “typical case.” You see news reports of a horrific looking accident where the driver walks away. And there are cases won in court, where a low speed collision with minimal property damage caused a permanent disability. So there is no typical prototype case that yours must fit into.
Table of Contents
- 1 Whiplash/neck injuries
- 2 Disk bulge
- 3 Shoulder injuries caused by car accidents
- 4 Concussions
Whiplash is the most common injury suffered in car accidents.2 Up to 66% of all insurance claimants in liability cases reported neck injuries, and the majority of these were neck sprains and strains.3
What is whiplash?
Whiplash is a generic medical term used to describe a variety of neck injuries usually occurring in vehicle crashes. These include muscle strain and tearing of soft tissue. It can also describe other neck injuries, including nerve damage and disc damage. It is usually caused by a sudden movement of the head relative to the chest/torso area. Severe crashes can produce zero neck injuries, while a low impact crash can cause serious injuries to the neck, all depending on how the neck moved during the collision.
While there have been a lot of studies on whiplash and its causes, not everything is known about it there is still quite a bit of uncertainty. Studies have shown height might be a risk factor, because shorter motorists are better protected by head restraints on their car seats.4 Women are also more likely to suffer neck injuries, and are more likely to develop long term symptoms. One theory explaining this discrepancy is the amount of muscles men have in their necks vs. Women.
Finally, the size and weight of the vehicle striking your car may influence injury risk. A study of insurance claims found when victims were struck by a vehicle heavier than the one they were driving, they were more likely to claim neck injury.
Your central nervous system, is comprised of your brain, and spinal cord which runs from your brain down to your waist. Together they control most of your body’s functions. Any injury to your spinal cord can be serious.
Spinal cord injuries happens when your vertebrae, ligaments, discs or spinal cord is damaged. The leading cause of spinal cord injuries are motor vehicle accidents, accounting for 40% of new cases each year.5 A spinal cord injury can cause temporary or permanent changes in strength, sensation or other functions below the site of the injury.
Different types of spinal cord injuries
Concussion of the spinal cord. Otherwise known as cervical cord neurapraxia. An injury to the cord disrupting conduction causing temporary paralysis, but is not permanent.6
Cord contusion. Contusions are bruises, so when you suffer a spinal cord contusion, part of your cord is bruised. Contusions may cause bleeding, swelling, and cell damage. Paralysis is possible but only seen in the worst case scenarios. Chronic weakness and numbs are more common.
Cord compression. Your cord can be compressed by a collapse in a vertebrae, reducing the height of the bone causing a compression of the spinal cord. Ruptured or herniated discs, blood clots, or even tumors can cause cord compression.
Tear of the cord. This is the most serious of spinal cord injuries. This is the worst case scenario. A full tear of a spinal cord can cause complete paralysis below the tear. It’s classified as a “complete” injury because no information can be transmitted below the site of the injury.
Your vertebral disks are saucer shaped rubbery objects sitting between your vertebral bones. They help cushion the spinal column, sort of like rubber bushings. They resemble jelly donuts because they have a tougher outer shell, and a soft, jelly-like interior. Injuries to your disks can lead to pain in your neck, back, lower back, arms and legs.7
A disk bulge is when the vertebral disk is outside the very narrow area it’s supposed to sit. Think of a hamburger patty as a disk, and the bun as the area it’s supposed to occupy. If you have an oversized patty it extrudes past the edges of the bun, making it look too big. Although the disk is larger than it should be, there is no rupture.
Disk herniation/ruptured disk
Also referred to as “slipped disks” this injury doesn’t involve your disk slipping at all. As stated earlier, your vertebral disk is like a jelly doughnut, with an outer shell and a very soft center. A traumatic event, such as a car accident, can cause the outer shell to rupture and the soft center material can spill out, pinching your nerves and causing much pain.
Depending on where the disk injury is, you may feel tingling in one or both arms, one or both legs, numbness and or weakness in one or both arms/legs, loss of bowel/bladder control, shooting pains down your arms or legs, and burning pain in your arms, shoulder or neck.
Treatment for disk injuries caused by vehicle collision
Disk injuries resulting from car crashes are often worse then other accidents since the forces involved are more significant. The most conservative treatment is time and rest. Of course, avoid any activity that may prolong or worsen the injury. If that does not resolve the pain, your doctor may prescribe pain killers, muscle relaxers, and even nerve pain medication.
Physical therapy involving traction, electrical stimulation, and even bracing may be used. If none of these conservative treatments work, the doctor may suggest an epidural steroid injection, a more serious form of treatment. Local anesthesia is combined with a corticosteroid and injected around your spine. The local anesthesia will provide immediate treatment, while the corticosteroid are anti-inflammatory, reducing swelling and inflammation providing long term relief.
If all of these treatments and you do not recover, then you will require surgery, or your condition might be chronic and something you have to live with for the rest of your life.
Shoulder injuries caused by car accidents
The shoulder joint is the most mobile and unstable joints on your body. The joint is located where your upper arm bone (humerus) attaches or fits into your shoulder blade (scapula), like a ball and socket.8
The reason for the range of motion in your shoulder, is also the reason for the instability. Think about a bowling ball placed into a very small bowl. This allows for extreme mobility, but it’s very easy for the bowling ball to fall out of the small bowl if you tilt it just a little.
Torn rotator cuffs
A very common shoulder injury involving car accidents. A rotator cuff is made up of a group of 4 muscles and their tendons surrounding your shoulder joint.9 Remember the instability I mentioned earlier? The rotator cuff keeps the bowling ball inside the small bowl. An injury here can cause significant pain and loss of strength in the shoulder.
So how do you get a torn rotator cuff after a car accident? They can happen in any type of collision, but you see them quite often in accidents when the victim knows the accident is about to occur. When the driver knows an accident is about to occur, the driver will often tense up and grip the steering wheel tightly, and then straighten their arms, locking their elbows.
When this happens, any force cause by the impact will transfer directly to your shoulders. An acute tear of the cuff happens.
Shoulder blade fracture
A fracture of your shoulder blade, called the scapula, is caused mostly by vehicle accidents, including cars and motorcycles. While rare when compared to shoulder injuries (only 3% of all shoulder injuries), over 50% of them are caused by vehicle collisions.10 The injury requires high energy trauma directly to the shoulder area.
Remember the bowling ball and small bowl? Well a direct hit to that and bowling ball will come flying out of that bowl. Same for your shoulder in an accident. Shoulder dislocations are common in car crashes. Partial dislocations are called subluxation. Treatment includes gentle maneuvers to try and finesse the ball back into the socket joint. Surgery may be required.
Read more about shoulder injuries suffered in California car accidents.
Concussions are traumatic brain injuries, caused by your brain shaking around inside your skull and striking it hard enough to cause an injury.11
Your brain is surrounded by fluids to protect it from your skull, acting as a cushion. When your head is jarred back and forth hard enough, or your head is hit hard enough, then it can overcome the effects of the fluid cushion and crash into your skull, causing injury.
There may be no other signs of injury or trauma to your head. You do not need to lose consciousness to experience a concussion.
If you think you hit your head and suffer from nausea, dizziness, headaches, slowed thinking, balance problems, you might have a concussion and should visit your emergency room immediately. Any head injury should be addressed immediately in the emergency room.
Insurance Research Council. 2008. Auto injury insurance claims: countrywide patterns in treatment, cost, and compensation. Malvern, PA. ↩
Temming, J. and Zobel, R. 1998. Frequency and risk of cervical spine distortion injuries in passenger car accidents: significance of human factors data. Proceedings of the 1998 International IRCOBI Conference on the Biomechanics of Impact, 219-33. Bron, France: International Research Council on the Biomechanics of Impact. ↩