The word “whiplash” can describe the motion your neck experiences in a car accident. It can also refer to a range of injuries that result from the motion. In either case, whiplash is often dismissed by claims adjusters and insurance defense lawyers as a made-up injury used to pad insurance claims.
But accident victims who have experienced whiplash injuries know better. Whiplash can damage the soft tissues, bones, and nerves of the neck. It can even lead to a traumatic brain injury. These injuries can cause severe pain and disable you from performing many daily tasks like driving and working.
What Is the Anatomy of Your Neck?
The neck includes the top seven vertebrae of your spine. This segment of your spine called your cervical spine, provides a stable column to support the weight of your head. This might not seem like much weight to carry. But the average human head weighs about 11 pounds or roughly the same as a one-gallon metal can of paint.
Ligaments hold the vertebrae together. These tough bands of tissue prevent the vertebrae from moving too far. They also provide tension to hold discs between the vertebrae. These discs are made from collagen and act as a cushion between the vertebrae so they do not strike or grind as you jump or run.
Your neck also includes muscles attached to the vertebrae, collarbones, and skull to move your head when you nod or turn it. The muscles attach to the bones using tendons. When you contract your neck muscles, the muscles flex. When you relax them, they extend.
What Are the Common Causes of Whiplash?
Whiplash happens when you suddenly accelerate, like in a rear-end collision, or rapidly decelerate, like when you hit a fixed object. When your body experiences a sudden change in direction, your head keeps moving in its initial direction. Even if you wear a seat belt, the restraint will only hold your chest and not your head.
As your body comes to a stop, your neck hyperextends due to the weight and motion of your head. The neck pulls your head to stay with your body and can get injured in the process. To envision the forces on your neck, imagine trying to stop a gallon can of paint traveling at the speed of a car.
For example, in a rear-end collision, the occupants of the front vehicle whip backward into their seats until their heads hit their headrests. When the driver of the front vehicle reacts by slamming on the brakes, the occupants whip forward into their seat belts. Their heads continue forward until their necks stop them.
In the rear vehicle, the opposite actions happen. The occupants whip forward into their seat belts, and their necks hyperextend to stop their heads. The vertebrae separate slightly, and the ligaments stretch. The collision stops the car, and the neck ligaments pull the vertebrae together, compressing the discs.
Examples of Whiplash Injuries
Whiplash injuries can cause severe symptoms but rarely result in fatalities. According to the National Safety Council, rear-end collisions happen more often than other types of car collisions at 41.7%. And these crashes are responsible for 37.7% of all car accident injuries. This roughly matches up.
But rear-end crashes only cause about 17.9% of traffic fatalities. This is less than half the number expected if these collisions were as deadly as other crash types.
Some injuries that result from whiplash include:
Neck strain occurs when whiplash causes hyperextension of the neck muscles and tendons.
These injuries can cause:
- Muscle pain and weakness
- Stiff neck
- Muscle spasms
Mild neck strain will heal in about four to six weeks without medical intervention. You can often speed up the healing process by resting your neck and using ice packs to reduce the swelling. A severe neck strain may take longer to heal, but doctors rarely perform surgery for neck strains.
A sprained neck happens when the whipping of your head hyperextends the neck ligaments. In a mild sprain, the ligaments simply stretch. These injuries usually heal within a few weeks. A severe strain may cause the ligaments to tear. Severe injuries could take several months to heal.
Symptoms of a sprained neck include:
- Joint pain in or near the spine
- Limited range of motion
You may also hear or feel the ligament “pop” when you injure your neck.
The discs are formed from collagen. When the discs experience the compression and hyperextension associated with whiplash, they can rupture. If the interior squeezes through the rupture, you have a herniated disc. If the disc simply collapses, you have a bulging disc.
A damaged disc can produce neck pain and instability as the spine shortens due to the crushed disk. As a result, the tendons and ligaments get pulled out of place, leading to neck pain.
A bulging or herniated disc can also compress nerve roots. This is a much more serious problem. The nerves passing through the neck lead to the shoulders, arms, and hands.
When a damaged disc pushes on the nerve roots, you can experience the following:
- Pain that radiates into your shoulders, arms, and hands
- Upper limb weakness
- Numbness in the hands and fingers
Your damaged disc will not heal. Instead, you will require costly surgery to remove the damaged disc and either replace it with an artificial disc or fuse the adjacent vertebrae.
The hyperextension and compression of the spine can fracture a vertebra. A fractured vertebra is one of the most dangerous neck injuries you can suffer. If a bone fragment from a fractured vertebra severs your spinal cord, you will suffer permanent paralysis in all four limbs, as well as your abdomen and possibly your chest.
How Can You Get Compensation for a Whiplash Injury?
If someone else’s actions caused your accident, the other party may bear liability for your whiplash injury. You can recover compensation for both your economic and non-economic damages. Economic losses include medical costs and lost income. Non-economic losses cover the diminishment in your quality of life. Whiplash can cause painful and debilitating injuries. Call Anderson Injury Lawyers at (817) 294-1900 for a free consultation to discuss your whiplash injury and the financial compensation you may be entitled to pursue under Texas law.