Remember, though, this is a lawyer’s explanation. It is only intended as an introduction to this subject. Only rely on medical advice from qualified health care professionals.
Types Of Car Accident Injuries
These are the most common injuries from car accidents . . .
- Broken Bones (Fractures)
- Neck, Back and Spine Injuries
- Internal Injuries
- Concussions and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI)
- Psychological injuries
Locations Of Car Accident Injuries
Working from the head down, these are the locations where the most common car accident injuries can occur . . .
- Head And Face
Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorder
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
- Neck, Back and Spine
Soft Tissue Injuries to muscles, ligaments and tendons
Disc Injuries such as bulges, subluxations and herniations
- Internal Injuries
- Upper Extremities: Shoulder, Upper Arm, Elbow, Forearm, Wrist, Hand, Fingers
Soft Tissue Injuries to muscles, ligaments, tendons
- Lower Extremities: Hip, Upper Leg, Knee, Lower Leg, Ankle, Feet, Toes
Soft Tissue Injuries to muscles, ligaments, tendons
More Detail About The Most Common Car Accident Injuries
Let’s take a more detailed look at the most common car accident injuries.
Car accidents often cause bruises, which are also known as contusions. Bruises occur when there is bleeding under the skin from blood vessels into the surrounding tissues.
Small bruises alone are not normally dangerous. Sometimes, however, bruises can be serious, leading to other more life-threatening forms of hematoma (bleeding), such as when they are associated with serious injuries such as fractures and more severe internal bleeding.
Bruises may result from your body striking the car, or from objects such as airbags striking your body. When they engage, seatbelts often leave bruises on the torso and hips where they come into contact with your body.
Cuts, or lacerations, can result from flying objects such as glass or from you body striking the inside of your vehicle.
Simple lacerations are not deep and usually heal on their own. More serious cuts may require stitches. Deep lacerations may require surgery to stop blood loss and repair the injury.
Lacerations can leave scarring. Especially if the scarring is on your face, head or some other easily visible part of your body, you may need or want plastic surgery to make the scar less noticeable.
Finger, wrist, arm, rib, toe, ankle and leg fractures are all common in car accidents.
Simple breaks are usually placed in a cast until they heal and then you are sent to physical therapy to regain strength and full motion in the area.
More serious broken bones may require surgery. For example, if the broken bones are out of alignment, you may need surgery to put them back into the correct alignment so they will heal properly.
Neck, Back and Spine Injuries
Because neck injuries are the most common car accident injuries, I’m going to discuss them in more detail.
To understand a traumatic neck injury, you have to know something about the anatomy of your neck. The neck consists of the top 7 vertebrae (bones) of the spine. In medical parlance, this is called the “cervical spine.” The bones are identified by the letter “C” (as in cervical) and then the number of the bone, counting from the top. So, C3 is the third cervical vertebrae from the top.
Below the 7 cervical vertebrae, beginning at about the chest level, are 12 thoracic vertebrae. They are identified by the letter . . . that’s right “T” . . . and the number of the bone, counting from the top.
Below the thoracic vertebrae, beginning in the low back area, are the 5 lumbar vertebrae (L1 through L5), then the sacrum (S-1) and then the coccyx.
If the bones of the spine were simply stacked on top of each other, your spine would be inflexible. You couldn’t bend over, twist or make other movements of your spine.
Flexibility exists because of spongy discs that are between each bone in the spine. The discs allow for movement and act like a shock absorber to cushion the bones of the spine as you twist, jump and move your spine.
In addition to the bones and discs, the spine includes the surrounding soft tissues — muscles, ligaments, tendons, blood vessels and nerves.
Let’s briefly look at the nerves.
The spinal cord originates at the brain and travels down the spinal canal. As it descends, the spinal cord gives off smaller nerves that leave the spine between each vertebra through an opening called the foramen.
The nerves that leave the spine in the cervical area travel into the arms and hands. The nerves that leave the spine in the thoracic area mostly go into the chest and stomach. The nerves that leave the spinal canal in the lumbar spine area travel into the legs and feet.
So, to return to the neck, it consists of the first 7 vertebrae, C1 through C7, the discs between them — which are identified by the two bones that they are between, as in C4 — C5, and the surrounding muscles, ligaments, tendons, blood vessels and nerves.
The top 2 cervical discs, called the atlas (C1) and the axis (C2), differ from the other vertebrae because they are designed specifically for rotation. These two vertebrae allow your neck to rotate in many directions, including looking to the side.
Though the cervical spine is very flexible, it is also at risk for injury from strong, sudden movements, such as whiplash-type injuries. This high risk of harm is due to the limited muscle support that exists in the cervical area, and because this part of the spine has to support the weight of the head. This is a lot of weight for a small, thin set of bones and soft tissues to bear. Therefore, sudden, strong head movement can cause damage.
Let’s look at the most common types of traumatic neck injury . . .
Ligaments are bands of fibrous tissue that connect bones together and help to stabilize joints. When those ligaments are stretched or torn in the neck, the result is a neck sprain, which can cause pain and stiffness.
There are also muscles in the neck. When those muscles are stretched or torn, a neck strain results. Sometimes, these are called “pulled muscles.” They often occur when the muscles are suddenly and powerfully contracted or when they stretch unusually far.
Neck sprains and neck strains are sometimes called “hyperflexion-hyperextension injuries” or “whiplash.”
Cervical nerves leave the spinal cord in the cervical spine area and travel down into the arm. Along the way, the nerves supply sensation (feeling) to a part of the skin of the shoulder and arm and supply electrical signals to certain muscles to move part of the arm or hand. When a nerve is irritated or pinched, by either a bone spur or a fragment of a herniated (ruptured) disc, it causes the nerve to not work properly. The result can be weakness in the muscles the nerve goes to, numbness in the skin where the nerve goes, or pain in the area where the nerve travels. These radiating symptoms are called cervical radiculopathy.
When neck motion puts too much pressure on a disc, a herniated disc may result. Sometimes these are called “slipped discs” or “ruptured discs.” In this injury, the annulus is torn and part of the nucleus pulposus squeezes out of the center of the disc. In the jelly donut analogy, the jelly comes out of the donut. If the tear is on the side of the disc next to the spinal canal, the nucleus pulposus can press against the spinal nerves. This pressure can cause pain, numbness and weakness along the nerve. There is also evidence that the chemicals released from the ruptured disc may irritate the nerve root, leading to some of the symptoms of a herniated disc, especially pain.
Without actually herniating, discs may bulge. Normally, a bulging disc is not considered nearly as serious as a herniated disc.
Once your doctor diagnoses your traumatic neck injury, s/he will prescribe treatment that can be anything from conservative treatment, such as medications and rest, through surgery, depending on the injury.
Thoracic (mid-back) and lumbar (low back) injuries to the spine work the same way as injuries to the neck.
Internal organs such as the liver, bowels, kidneys, spleen, lungs and heart can be injured if the car crash forces your body into an object like the steering wheel or if you are hit by flying objects from inside or outside your vehicle.
These injuries result in internal bleeding and must be treated promptly.
Concussions and Traumatic Brain Injuries
This is the formal definition of a traumatic brain injury which was adopted by the Brain Injury Association of America Board of Directors in 1986 . . .
“Traumatic brain injury is an insult to the brain, not of a degenerative or congenital nature but caused by an external physical force, that may produce a diminished or altered state of consciousness, which results in an impairment of cognitive abilities or physical functioning. It can also result in the disturbance of behavioral or emotional functioning. These impairments may be either temporary or permanent and cause partial or total functional disability or psychosocial maladjustment.”
As the name suggests, and as this definition states, a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is an injury to the brain that results from an external force, or trauma, to the head. In other words, it’s a head injury that causes damage to the brain.
The “external force” can be a direct blow to the head such as striking the steering wheel in a car accident. Even though the skull is not penetrated or fractured, the force can cause the brain to be injured in a number of ways.
Or, the “external force” can be a rapid acceleration and deceleration (“whiplash”) of the head that shakes or rotates the brain. Examples of this are whiplash in a car accident or Shaken Baby Syndrome.
As the BIA definition states, the “external force” damages the tissues and cells of the brain causing temporary or permanent impairment in the cognitive, emotional and physical abilities of an individual.
There are two types of head injuries that damage the brain. A Penetrating Head Injury is a brain injury that occurs when an object — such as a knife or bullet — penetrates the skull or the skull is fractured. In that case, bone fragments, foreign material or dirt can get into the brain, damage brain tissue and cause infection.
However, most Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs) are Closed Head Injuries (CHI) that do not involve penetration of the brain.
In a Closed Head Injury (CHI), trauma to the head sets the brain in motion inside the skull. Depending upon the degree and direction of the forces applied, the brain can be damaged in many different ways. These include surface contusions of the brain from a coup-contre coup (an initial blow followed by a rebound against the opposite side of the skull) and twisting and stretching from rotational force which damage fine structures like axons.
Let me explain this second example.
Specialized brain cells called neurons do the processing work of the brain (such as thinking). Axons — long, hollow tubular structures that project from the neurons — form the “wiring” that links neuronal processing centers.
External forces can cause Axons to be damaged by twisting or stretching, preventing the neurons from functioning properly.
Diffuse Axonal Injury (DAI) occurs on the cellular level and is visible only under a microscope at autopsy. It is widely diffused and typically leaves blood vessels and major structures intact. Therefore, these Diffuse Axonal Injuries (DAI) do not appear on CTs or even MRIs. As a result, this type of subtle TBI is a very under-diagnosed and under-treated malady. It is a “Silent Epidemic.”
Obviously, not all TBIs are equally serious. They range from catastrophic to subtle. However, even subtle brain injuries can have significant, permanent, life-altering consequences for the patient.
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) can be fatal. For survivors, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) can cause any of a number of physical, cognitive and emotional symptoms. Of course, not every patient will have all of these symptoms, and some patients will have symptoms not listed here.
However, common physical symptoms of traumatic brain injuries can include . . .
- seizures of all types.
- muscle spasticity.
- double vision, blurred vision or low vision, even blindness.
- loss of smell or taste.
- speech impairments such as slow or slurred speech.
- headaches or migraines.
- fatigue, increased need for sleep.
- balance problems.
Cognitive symptoms of traumatic brain injuries can include . . .
- short-term memory loss, long-term memory loss.
- slowed ability to process information.
- trouble concentrating or paying attention for periods of time.
- difficulty keeping up with a conversation, other communication difficulties such as word finding problems.
- spatial disorientation.
- organizational problems and impaired judgment.
- unable to do more than one thing at a time.
- a lack of initiating activities, or once started, difficulty in completing tasks without reminder
Emotional symptoms of traumatic brain injuries can include . . .
- increased anxiety.
- depression and mood swings.
- impulsive behavior.
- more easily agitated.
- egocentric behaviors, difficulty seeing how behaviors can affect others
Here’s another question that often comes up when TBI is involved. Does there have to be a loss of consciousness to sustain a brain injury?
No, loss of consciousness (LOC) is not required. Research has shown that brain injury can occur without loss of consciousness and that the neuropsychological consequences of TBI without loss of consciousness do not differ in severity from those occurring when there is a brief comatose period.
What is required is any alternation of the state of consciousness, such as being dazed or confused.
It is normal after a car accident to be uncomfortable driving or riding as a passenger in a car for a while. You may also be reluctant to drive in the area where your accident happened or near the type of vehicle that caused your accident.
Usually, these anxieties subside.
If they do not, or if the symptoms of reliving your accident or avoiding similar circumstances get worse, you may have a psychological disorder known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Treatment for PTSD ranges from medication to talk therapy.