Although you can injure any part of your body in a car accident if the crash is severe enough, the most common car accident injuries are injuries to the spinal column (i.e., the neck or back). The spinal column consists of the vertebrae and the disks between the vertebrae (called intervertebral disks), as well as the spinal cord running through the vertebrae. However, the muscles supporting the spinal column are also very susceptible to injury in a car accident. The most common neck and back injuries from car accidents are whiplash, muscle and ligament strains and sprains, and disk injuries.
In this article, we'll take a closer look at all of these injuries, and we'll offer some tips on getting medical treatment after a car accident.
Whiplash is not an actual medical term; it is a lay term for an injury to the soft tissues of the neck. The soft tissues of the neck include the neck muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Tendons connect muscles to bones, and ligaments connect bones to bones.
The medical definition of whiplash is often neck sprain or neck strain, although some doctors will indeed write whiplash as a diagnosis. A whiplash injury to the neck is caused by exactly what the word sounds like -- the head and neck going through a motion that is akin to the lashing of a whip. In medical terminology, it would be called the sudden extension and flexion of the neck (i.e., the neck moves back and forth due to 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. Depending on the severity of the injury, some people might develop memory loss, difficulty in concentration, sleep disturbances, fatigue, or even depression.
Symptoms of whiplash often develop immediately after the accident. However, it is not uncommon for a person who has been in a car accident to feel fine immediately afterward, and not have symptoms for a day or two. (Learn more about car accident neck injuries.)
Muscle strain is the medical term for a muscle injury (a stretch or a tear). Technically, you strain a muscle or a tendon, but you sprain a ligament or a joint.
A car accident can cause injury to the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of any part of the neck or back. The back is divided into three parts -- cervical (neck), thoracic (the upper and middle back), and lumbar (the lower back). Cervical and lumbar injuries are more common in car accidents, but you certainly can injure your thoracic region in a car accident.
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, but sometimes they may not appear for several days.
A disk injury is one of the most severe forms of back injury. 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.
Disks are very tough, but the force of a car accident can cause them to bulge or rupture. A ruptured disk is also called a herniated disk. A disk is said to bulge when the exterior “skin” of the disk weakens and the spongy material inside the disk pushes the disk into the space inside the spinal canal where the spinal cord and nerve roots are.
A disk pressing against the spinal cord or the nerve roots is a serious problem. It will usually 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.
If you have pain or other symptoms after a car accident, you should seek medical attention immediately. If the pain immediately after the accident is severe, you should go to the emergency room. Otherwise, you should make an appointment to see your primary care provider as soon as possible. Don’t wait. Insurance companies generally assume that, if you did not seek medical attention immediately, you weren’t that hurt.