Motor vehicle accidents are the primary cause of neck injuries, often resulting in long-term pain and discomfort and high socioeconomic costs. The most common type of injury in a crash is a neck injury. Over 800,000 car accidents resulting in neck injuries are reported in the U.S. each year. The annual cost to treat these neck injuries alone is as much as $5.2 billion.
The anatomy of the neck makes it especially vulnerable to accidents at any speed. During a crash, the neck can suddenly jerk back and forth, side to side, or even suffer trauma from flying debris. If you’re wearing your seatbelt, the brunt of the force from the accident can hit your neck.
Forceful motions are likely to damage the delicate muscles, ligaments, discs, nerves, joints, tendons, or bones in the neck. To make matters worse, you may tense up immediately before impact if you know the crash is about to happen. This reaction only serves to increase your chances of sustaining a neck injury.
Who is Liable for Your Neck Injuries?
Generally, the person who caused the car accident becomes liable for your neck injuries. Maybe they were texting and driving, driving while they were drowsy, not obeying traffic laws, or even driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
They can be liable if all of the elements of negligence are present in your case:
- They owed you a duty of care
- They violated that duty
- You sustained injuries as a result of their violation
- Your damages are the direct result of your injuries
Contacting a seasoned car accident lawyer is the best way to determine if you have a personal injury claim for your neck injuries.
Symptoms of Neck Injury After a Crash
Crash accident victims can have a wide range of symptoms, from slight discomfort or stiffness to agonizing pain or even nausea. It’s crucial to note that symptoms or a neck injury don’t always occur immediately after the accident. Deferred neck pain is frequent. Some people with a neck injury don’t experience symptoms for two to four weeks after the accident.
Common symptoms of a neck injury after an auto collision include:
- Neck stiffness
- Inability to turn the neck from one side to the other
- Difficulty moving the head up and down without pain or even at all
- Feeling heaviness in the head or neck
- Throbbing or shooting neck pains
- Neck tenderness
- Tenderness at the back of the head
- Neck muscle spasms
- Arm numbness or tingling
- Feeling chilled or feverish
- Feeling overly worn-out
- Pain radiating to the shoulder or back areas
- Trouble remaining focused or falling asleep
- Anxiety, irritability, or depression, and other mood changes
- Memory problems
- Ringing in the ears
- Blurry vision
After a car accident, your priority should be seeking medical care. Even if you aren’t experiencing any of these symptoms right away and feel fine, you should still see a doctor. Medical staff must document your injuries as soon as possible to aid in your legal claim.
Neck Injury Risk Factors
You don’t need any predisposing risk factors to suffer a neck injury in a car accident. The resulting trauma alone is enough to cause damage to the complex and vulnerable neck. Even still, there are pre-existing factors that may contribute to or worsen neck injuries.
These risk factors include:
- Employment necessitating repetitive neck movements
- Ergonomically-inadequate workstations
- Poor posture
- Prior neck injury or trauma
- Pre-existing neck pain or arthritis
- Older age
Keep in mind that even if you do have risk factors for a neck injury, the person who caused your car accident is still liable for your injuries.
How Do Doctors Diagnose Neck Injuries?
A doctor should immediately examine you following any motor vehicle collision. First, they will take your medical history and perform an exam. They will assess for any tenderness, numbness, or muscle weakness and determine how far you can move your head in all directions.
Next, your doctor may order diagnostic tests to understand better what is going on with your neck.
They can order:
- X-rays can show areas where the nerves or spinal cord can get pinched.
- Computed Tomography (CT) scans use many different x-ray images taken from many different angles to obtain detailed cross-sectional views of the neck’s internal structures.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to produce comprehensive images of bones and soft tissues, as well as the spinal cord and the nerves extending from it.
Some neck injury victims have evident structural injuries on X-ray or MRI but lack any symptoms.
Doctors use these imaging tools in addition to a thorough medical history and physical exam to diagnose neck injuries. Sometimes neck injuries occur with concussions. As such, your doctor might watch you for concussion symptoms, such as difficulty speaking, confusion, and sleepiness. The risk of a concussion is another reason to seek medical attention right away after an accident. Severe concussions can kill, especially without immediate treatment.
Your doctor can also order electromyography (EMG) if they suspect you might have a pinched nerve. During an EMG, a technician inserts fine needles into the skin to a muscle. Then they conduct tests that evaluate the speed of nerve conduction to determine if there is proper nerve function.
Your doctor will likely refer you to an orthopedic surgeon if they diagnose you with neck injuries. If your neck injury is left untreated, you may live with chronic and severe pain. In fact, some individuals will experience whiplash-associated disorders (WAD) for several years to come after a collision.
Affected Neck Areas in an Auto Collision
The neck consists of seven tiny bones, known as the cervical vertebrae, at the top of the spinal column. Between each vertebra are discs that provide cushioning between the bones and facet joints that allow for head movement.
The musculoskeletal system provides support for the neck and head. It also encases the spinal cord, giving it protection. Located at the upper end of the spinal column, the neck is also the cervical spine. The neck consists of two parts the subaxial spine and the craniocervical junction (CCJ).
In a car accident, the cervical discs absorb most of the shock and put them at high risk of injury. However, the cervical ligaments are also commonly strained, stretched, or torn, leading to chronic neck pain. The joints or facets of the neck often suffer injury when impacted by the forces in the accident.
Common Car Accident Neck Injuries
Even minor collisions can cause neck injuries. The impact’s location can result in harm to various areas of the neck. Whiplash is a common term used for all neck injuries in crashes. However, whiplash is technically soft tissue damage that usually falls under one or more of the following diagnoses.
#1. Cuts and Lacerations
Debris is common in car wrecks and can gouge the neck area. Victims may experience superficial cuts, bruising, or bleeding. Sometimes the lacerations are deep, requiring stitches and damaging neck ligaments and tendons.
#2. Neck Strain or Sprain
Neck strains and sprains can have similar symptoms, but they are different injuries. Strains impact the facet joints and the tendons that attach bones to muscles. Muscles can also be strained. On the other hand, ligaments, which are the soft tissues that connect bones to other bones, can suffer sprains. Sprains and strains cause pain with head or upper neck movement, decreased mobility, or muscle spasms.
#3. Stiff Muscles and Tendons
Car accident neck injuries often also lead to stiffness in the neck, sometimes called a “crick in the neck.” Moving the head or keeping the neck in the same position for a while can result in severe pain.
#4. Pinched Nerves
Nerves of the neck can become pinched with damage to tissues, bones, and discs. Tendons may also shift out of place, compressing or rubbing the nearby nerves causing serious pain as well as numbness and tingling. Muscle sprain, strain, or disc damage frequently causes nerve problems.
#5. Cervical Spondylolisthesis
Vertebrae can slip out of alignment or dislocate during a crash. These injuries can be mild or severe, or anywhere in between. Slipped vertebra can compress nerves or the spinal cord, resulting in radiating pain in the back of the head or shoulders.
#6. Slipped or Herniated Disc
The cervical spine discs are jelly-filled and absorb shock to give the vertebrae protection. In a motor vehicle crash, the discs often slip, herniate, bulge, or rupture. Much like cervical spondylolisthesis, the slippage can cause the disc to compress the nerves of the spinal cord.
However, a bulge or rupture occurs when the disc substance emerges out of the disc, crowding the vertebrae and compressing nerves. Disc injuries often result in neck or arm pain and numbness from pinched or squeezed nerves. This is a common injury in side-impact accidents.
#7. Facet Joint Injuries
The head and neck area move freely with the help of facet joints. These joints are also responsible for stabilizing the head and neck. Car accidents can cause the facet joints to become inflamed or irritated, which causes varying degrees of pain.
#8. Neck Fracture or Compression
A fractured cervical spine, commonly referred to as a broken neck, is a traumatic injury necessitating emergency medical care. Broken bones in the neck can cause additional damage to the spinal cord nerves, causing a spinal cord injury. A broken neck has the potential to cause paralysis or death.
Treatment Options for Car Accident Neck Injuries
If you don’t seek immediate medical care after the crash, you can be at risk for long-term complications. Some accident victims recover within a few weeks.
Others may have a lengthy treatment and recovery period due to conditions such as:
- Severe injury of the neck ligaments, discs, or joints
- Spinal fractures
- Neck re-injury during recovery
- Built-up swelling and irritation
Many people with neck injuries want to avoid surgery if at all possible. Depending on the type and extent of your injury, you might relieve your symptoms and heal at home or with simple treatments.
- Icing the neck for the first couple days post-accident
- Moist heat after the swelling goes away.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription pain relievers like acetaminophen or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Gentle massage and stretching
- Wearing a neck brace or collar temporarily.
- Physical therapy (PT)
- Chiropractic care
- Radiofrequency ablation (FRA)
- Epidural steroid injections (ESI)
- Facet and medial branch nerve blocks
- Spinal cord stimulation
- Stem cell therapy
Unfortunately, severe neck injuries may require surgical treatment. Several surgical treatment options exist; some are only outpatient procedures. Your physician should discuss your options with you to identify the optimal treatment to restore mobility, eliminate pain, and get you back to regular activities as soon as possible.
Common surgical treatments include:
- Kyphoplasty: An outpatient surgery performed on fractured spinal vertebrae
- Fusion surgery: Fuses discs to provide neck stability
- Microdiscectomy: Surgical removal of a bone spur or disc
- Robotic spine surgery: Commonly used to treat spinal stenosis
Getting Legal Help for a Car Accident Neck Injury
The most critical step after being involved in a car accident is getting medical care. Your health and well-being are the priority. If you suspect you have a neck or other serious injury, get emergency medical care. If your injuries are minor or you aren’t sure if you are injured, you can go to urgent care or make an appointment with your own doctor.
Once you are medically stable, it’s time to reach out to an experienced attorney. If another party caused your car crash, they can be liable for your monetary damages. Neck injuries are often expensive and debilitating. You can receive compensation for your medical bills, lost wages, other accident-related expenses, and your pain and suffering.
Contact an attorney as soon as possible after your accident so they can begin collecting valuable evidence and guiding you through your claim.