Whiplash happens in many types of car wrecks, but primarily in rear-end and head-on collisions. While whiplash injuries are rarely life-threatening, they can produce pain, limit mobility, and cause permanent disabilities.
As a result of these injuries, you may require physical therapy. Your doctor might prescribe bed rest and light duty when you return to work. And even when you return to work, your neck, shoulders, head, and back may feel sore and limit your working hours.
Your Head and Neck
Your head weighs about 11 pounds, or roughly the same as five quarts of milk. Your neck supports your head. The main source of structural support comes from your cervical spine. This section of the spine includes the top seven vertebrae below your skull.
When the cervical vertebrae align, they form a strong column that holds up the weight of your head and brain. But the cervical spine can also flex and twist when the individual vertebrae move with respect to each other. The motion of the cervical spine allows you to nod and turn your head.
Ligaments hold the cervical vertebrae together. The ligaments also guide the motion of the spine so it does not dislocate or hyperextend. The elastic texture of these soft tissues provides a springiness that helps the vertebrae return to their normal positions after you twist or bend your neck.
Your neck muscles connect the cervical spine, skull, shoulder blades, and collar bones through tendons. The neck muscles strengthen your neck and move your head.
How Do Whiplash Injuries Happen?
Whiplash injuries happen when the head, neck, and body whip back and forth during a collision. This whipping motion produces two types of trauma:
Hyperextension injuries happen when your soft tissues get stretched. The stretching causes small tears to form in the soft tissues. These tears can propagate through the tissues, damaging and weakening them.
In a car accident, your body keeps moving until it hits something. If you wear a seat belt, your body will whip forward until your chest hits the restraint. If you do not wear a seat belt, you may hit the steering wheel or dashboard before your body stops.
But in either case, your head does not stop when your body stops. Your head keeps moving forward, pulling your neck. Based on the typical weight of a human head, you have the force of an 11-pound weight traveling at dozens of miles per hour, hyperextending your neck during a crash.
Blunt trauma happens when something strikes your head or neck as your body whips around during an accident. For example, your neck may slam into the headrest if you get rear-ended. If your vehicle gets hit from the side, your neck will stretch sideways, and your head may strike your door.
But the most common type of blunt trauma whiplash injury happens in slip and fall accidents. When your feet lose traction, they slip forward. Your body falls backward, and you land on the back of your body.
Typically, your shoulders hit the ground first, and your head whips back until it slams into the ground. As a result, you suffer hyperextension injuries to your neck and blunt trauma injuries to your shoulders and head.
Whiplash Injury Examples
Whiplash is not a single injury. Instead, the forces involved during whiplash can produce many types of injuries, including:
Neck Strain or Sprain
Neck strain happens when the muscles or tendons get hyperextended. These injuries typically heal within four to six weeks unless you suffer a full-thickness tear.
Symptoms of neck strain include:
- Neck stiffness and muscle spasms
A sprained neck occurs when you hyperextend the neck ligaments. Since the ligaments connect the vertebrae, your symptoms will appear in your spine instead of the tissues surrounding it.
Common symptoms of a sprained neck include:
- Spine pain and inflammation
- Limited range of motion
- Popping sounds in your neck during the accident
Sprained ligaments typically heal four to six weeks after your accident if you rest. Doctors rarely operate on neck sprains. A doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs and physical therapy to help you recover your neck strength and flexibility.
Herniated or Bulging Disc
Collagen discs sit between your vertebrae to cushion your neck. These discs are composed of a tough shell called the annulus and a springy center called the nucleus pulposus.
When you experience whiplash, your head and neck whip forward. This action hyperextends your neck and pulls your cervical vertebrae apart. When your head and neck whip backward, the vertebrae come crashing together and crush the discs.
Compressed discs can deform. When the annulus breaks apart and allows the nucleus pulposus to squeeze out, you have a herniated disc. When the annulus breaks down without separating, it can sag and form a bulging disc.
A bulging or herniated disc can rob your back of its stability, producing back pain. But a deformed disc can press on nerve roots branching from your spinal cord. This injury can cause radiating nerve pain, numbness, and muscle weakness.
The same hyperextension and compression forces that damage discs can also break vertebrae. A fractured vertebra is one of the most serious injuries you can suffer because a broken neck or back can produce a spinal cord injury.
When a vertebra breaks, bone fragments can get pushed into the spinal cord. If these bone fragments sever the spinal nerves, you will experience permanent paralysis and loss of feeling.
A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury that happens when the brain gets jostled inside the skull. The damage to the brain cells causes the brain tissues to swell.
Symptoms of a concussion include:
- Dizziness and nausea
- Blurry vision
- Ringing noise in the ears
Concussion symptoms usually last fewer than two months.
Getting Compensation for a Whiplash Injury
You can pursue compensation for your economic and non-economic losses after a whiplash injury caused by someone else’s negligence. Your economic losses include the amounts you paid for medical treatment. They also include the money you lost due to missing work.
Your non-economic losses cover the diminishment in your quality of life. Some examples of non-economic losses include disability, pain, and suffering.