The main types of injuries that car accident victims suffer are neck and back injuries, broken bones, and soft tissue injuries. Let’s look at each of those types of injuries in a little more detail. (For more background, get the basics on Car Accident Injuries.)
When doctors talk about the neck and back, they are almost always referring to the spinal column, which consists of the vertebrae and the disks between the vertebrae (called intervertebral disks), as well as the spinal cord running through the vertebrae.
Injuries to the neck and back muscles are also very common in car accidents. The most common types of neck and back injuries caused by car accidents are whiplash, muscle and ligament strains and sprains, and disk injuries.
Whiplash is an informal term for an injury to the soft tissues of the neck, which include the neck muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Tendons connect muscles to bones, and ligaments connect bones to bones.
The formal medical definition of whiplash varies, but many doctors define it as neck sprain or neck strain. A whiplash injury occurs because the neck and head is jerked back and forth because of the impact of the car accident. Whiplash injuries can also include injuries to the joint between the vertebrae, the disks, and the roots of the nerves that branch out of the spinal cord.
The main symptoms of whiplash include neck or upper back pain or stiffness, shoulder pain or stiffness, headache, dizziness, or a burning or itching sensation in the neck, shoulders, or arms. Whiplash can be more severe. A bad case of whiplash can even cause memory loss, difficulty in concentration, sleep disturbances, fatigue, or depression.
Most people feel the whiplash symptoms immediately after the accident, but it is not uncommon for the symptoms to not develop until a day or two after the accident.
A muscle strain is a stretched or torn muscle. One strains a muscle or a tendon, sprains a ligament or a joint. The most common types of muscle, tendon, and ligament injuries from car accidents are to the neck, back, shoulder, and elbow. A car accident can cause shoulder and elbow injuries because the arm often flails around or hits something due to the impact of the accident.
The back is divided into three parts -- cervical (neck), thoracic (the upper and middle back), and lumbar (the lower back). The most common types of back injuries in car accidents are injuries to the upper and middle back (the cervical and lumbar regions). This is because the upper body and back will move more than the lower back in the course of the impact. However, injuries to the lower back (the lumbar area) also occur quite often in car accidents.
Symptoms of muscle, tendon, and ligament injury include muscle aches and pain, joint pain, and limited flexibility and range of motion in the injured part of the body. Again, these symptoms can develop immediately after the accident or they may not show up for several days.
A disk injury is the most severe back injury. The intervertebral disks are round, spongy pads of cartilage that sit between the vertebrae. Disks are basically shock absorbers that cushion the vertebrae as the body moves. The shock of a car accident can cause the disks to bulge or rupture. A ruptured disk is also called a herniated disk.
If a disk bulges and presses against the spinal cord or the nerves coming out from the spinal cord, that is a serious problem. A bulging disk can cause severe pain in the back and numbness or weakness in the area that is controlled by the nerves that the disk is pushing on. A ruptured disk is even worse. When a disk ruptures, the spongy material inside the disk spills out into the spinal canal and can cause even worse pain and/or numbness and weakness. Although disks can rupture anywhere in the back, most herniated disks occur in the low back (lumbar region).
Car accident victims can certainly end up with broken bones from the impact. Obviously, if the accident is bad enough, one can break just about any bone in the body in a car accident.
Some of the more common broken bones are the ribs and clavicle, generally in head-on collisions. You injure or break your ribs on the steering wheel, and your clavicle can get broken by the shoulder safety belt holding you back. However, that is no reason to disconnect the shoulder belt. Your seat belt (lap and shoulder belts) are what keeps you from being ejected from the vehicle in a very serious accident.
A serious accident can also cause internal injuries. The most common types of internal injuries from a car accident are concussions and all kinds of abdominal injuries.
If you have pain or other complaints, seek medical attention after a car accident immediately! Don’t wait. Insurance companies generally assume that, if you did not seek medical attention immediately, you weren’t really hurt. That will create problems in determining the value of your case later on.