Neck injuries are common in car accidents. Researchers report that an estimated 800,000 car crashes in the U.S. each year involve neck injuries at an average annual treatment cost of $5.2 billion. In many cases, people who suffer neck injuries in motor vehicle collisions fail to seek prompt treatment, which can cause cervical spine injuries to worsen. Understanding the types of damage that can be caused to the cervical spine in a car wreck and their symptoms is important to ensure that you get the types of treatment you might need following your crash.
Understanding How the Neck Can Be Injured in a Car Accident
While your neck is vulnerable, it also does not have good protection from the forces that can be released in a collision. Your body is protected by your safety belt, which helps it to remain in place. However, your head and neck are not restrained during an impact. In a collision, the forces can cause your neck and head to violently jerk from side to side, back and forth, or can be struck by debris. Violent movements caused by the impact of a collision can seriously injure the nerves, joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles as well as the discs of your cervical spine.
If you notice that your vehicle is about to be involved in a car wreck before the impact, you will also automatically tense your muscles in anticipation of the crash, including your neck muscles. Tensed muscles cannot stretch as much as muscles that are relaxed, which can cause additional damage and muscle strain when the crash occurs.
Common Types of Cervical Spine Injuries in Car Accidents
You might suffer several different types of neck and cervical spine injuries in a car accident. The most common injuries that occur are described below.
Whiplash is a common type of injury that typically occurs in rear-end collisions. The force of the impact can cause your head and neck to move forward and backward suddenly, causing the neck to hyperextend. This can result in damage to and tearing of the connective tissues, muscles, ligaments, and nerves in your neck. In many cases, whiplash symptoms will be delayed for several hours or days. If you receive early treatment, your whiplash might resolve in a few weeks. However, in severe cases and those for which immediate treatment is not sought, the victims might suffer chronic pain, headaches, and other symptoms for months or years.
Soft Tissue injuries
Neck muscles, ligaments, and tendons can be torn, strained, or sprained in a car accident. Damage to the soft tissues can cause stiffness, tenderness, and pain in your shoulders and neck. If you have strained muscles, you might also notice a reduced ability to move your neck and suffer muscle spasms.
Cervical Disc Herniations
The discs in your cervical spine can be herniated in a high-impact collision. The cervical spine is the uppermost portion of your vertebral column and includes seven vertebrae that are separated by intervertebral discs. The discs help to cushion the bones of your spine and facilitate movement. They also help to distribute the loads from the head and neck above the discs.
Each disc is made up of a sturdy other layer made out of collagen to strengthen the disc and protect its inner layer called the annulus fibrosis. This portion of a cervical disc helps to absorb shocks. The disc also includes a soft, inner layer called the nucleus pulposus which consists of fibers that are suspended in gel. The nucleus pulposus provides flexibility for movement and additional cushioning.
A disc can be herniated when the tough outer layer is torn, causing some of the gel-like interior to leak. Disc herniations in the neck can cause significant pain, especially when the nucleus pulposus leaks onto a nearby nerve root. In some cases, a herniated disc might also leak into the spinal cavity.
Slipped Cervical Discs
Another type of cervical disc injury that can happen in a car wreck is a slipped disc. The force of a collision can cause a disc to slip out of place and compress or pinch a nearby nerve. Pinched or compressed nerves can cause numbness, tingling, weakness, and pain in your neck, arms, shoulders, fingers, or hands that might only occur on one side, depending on the nerve.
Facet Joint Injuries
The facet joints of your cervical spine help to stabilize your neck and head and provide mobility. If they are injured in a collision, the facet joints can become irritated and inflamed. The surrounding ligaments can also be injured and affect your range of motion and ability to move your neck.
Fractures of the Cervical Vertebrae
Serious car accidents can cause the vertebrae in your cervical spine to fracture. This can cause intense pain. The bone can splinter and impact your spinal cord, so you should avoid moving if you believe that you might have fractured the bones in your neck. Moving improperly could cause a spinal cord injury resulting in permanent paralysis.
Lacerations and Cuts
Your neck could also suffer lacerations and cuts during a car wreck caused by objects, glass, and other debris hitting your neck. Deep lacerations could potentially cause damage to your tendons and ligaments in addition to life-threatening blood loss.
Symptoms of Accident-Related Neck Injuries
Your body has a natural fight-or-flight response when you are involved in an accident, which is your body’s natural way of preparing itself for danger. This causes your system to be flooded with adrenaline, and you might also experience shock. Both shock and the adrenaline released in a car accident can mask pain signals, causing you to not immediately notice that you have been injured. Your symptoms might be delayed for several hours up to a few days. This makes it important to see a doctor immediately after you are involved in a car accident for a physical examination. Some of the types of symptoms you might experience that are caused by neck and cervical spine injuries include the following:
- Pain in your neck
- Neck stiffness
- Shoulder pain
- Reduced mobility of your neck
- Pain radiating in your shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers
- Tingling, numbness, or weakness in your arms, hands, and fingers
Seeing a doctor immediately after a car wreck can help you to obtain a proper diagnosis and treatment. Certain types of neck injuries can worsen if they are not promptly treated and can cause long-term complications.
Complications of Neck Injuries
If you do not treat your injuries from your car wreck, you can suffer several complications. For example, if you fail to see a doctor for whiplash injuries, you might develop associated disorders that can cause chronic pain and other problems for months or years, including chronic pain in your neck and back, frequent headaches, and the development of anxiety or depression.
A neck fracture can potentially impact your spine and cause permanent paralysis, depending on the spinal injury. For example, if a fractured bone severs your spinal cord, you could be paralyzed below the site of your injury permanently.
Failing to properly treat cervical disc injuries can cause inflammation and ongoing symptoms, including chronic neck and back pain that radiates down your arms and hands and can be debilitating. This can cause problems with your ability to concentrate and focus and interfere with your sleep and ability to participate in activities.
How Are Injuries Diagnosed and Treated?
When neck injuries from a car accident are suspected, doctors might use several diagnostic tools, including imaging studies such as x-rays, MRIs, and CT scans. They will also clinically evaluate your injuries and might order lab work to rule out viral infections.
Your doctor will also ask you questions about whether you have a history of neck or back pain and injuries, the location of your pain, a description of the severity of your pain, and the type of collision in which you were involved. These questions help doctors to evaluate your potential injuries and identify the types of diagnostic tools to use. They also help your doctor determine the type and severity of your injury and the appropriate treatment.
The types of treatment that might be recommended will depend on the nature and severity of your injury and might include both non-surgical and surgical options. Some of the types of treatment might include the following:
- Application of ice to reduce inflammation and then heat once the swelling goes down
- Over-the-counter pain relievers, including acetaminophen or ibuprofen
- Immobilization with a collar or neck brace
- Gentle stretches, massage, or chiropractic treatment
- Physical therapy
- Medial branch and facet nerve blocks
- Epidural steroid injections
- Stem cell therapy
- Radiofrequency ablation
- Spinal stimulator
- Microdiscectomy to remove a bone spur or disc
- Kyphoplasty to repair fractured vertebrae
- Fusion surgery
Seeking treatment and getting a prompt diagnosis of your neck injuries following a car wreck can help to prevent your injuries from worsening and facilitate your recovery. It can also help you to document that your injuries were caused or were exacerbated by your accident, which is important for preserving your right to recover compensation for your losses.