Cervical strain is the most common injury people receive in a rear-end collision (which are the most common kind of car accident). Rear-end collisions often cause some injury to the spinal column, called an acceleration-deceleration injury; in layman’s terms, whiplash. This sort of injury afflicts more than a million people annually in the United States.
The symptoms of a whiplash injury are no fun at all, and can linger on for years: neck pain, back pain, headache, travel anxiety, and sleep disorders are just a few. Twenty-five to forty percent of the million new whiplash victims each year can expect to never fully recover; twenty percent will sustain long-term chronic problems. Frequently, whiplash injuries hit women harder than men; this is because the female anatomy has less muscle mass in the neck and back. The injuries resulting from acceleration-deceleration impacts vary in severity from from mild muscle strain to brain injury and death.
The actual forces at work in a rear-end collision are frightening; the energy of the impact is primarily absorbed by the passengers’ necks and spines. And the force of the trauma is not necessarily tied to the severity of the resulting clinical problem. An impact of 8 mph moves the driver’s and passengers’ heads 18 inches, at forces up to 7Gs, in under a quarter of a second. For comparison, the Discovery space shuttle will withstand at most 3Gs. A persistent misconception is that if there’s no damage to the vehicles, there’s no damage to the passengers. Not true.
The Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden has recently performed studies that demonstrate how rapid changes to the spinal column (from acceleration/deceleration injuries) damage the nearby nerves. Damaged and degenerating nerves lead to more serious cervical spine damage later on. Rear-end collision forces also may cause very small focal lesions in the brain; these affect language, attention spans, reasoning skills, and other crucial brain functions (and, focal lesions can be caused by the whipping motion of the head, without direct blunt force trauma).
Children are more vulnerable than adults to certain brain injuries in a rear-end collision; a child’s head is proportionately larger to its body than an adult’s, and the stability of a child’s head depends on ligaments, not a fully developed skeleton. There’s more water content in a child’s brain, making it softer and more susceptible to serious injury caused by shearing forces. Another thing to keep in mind about whiplash injuries: they can be difficult to fully diagnose—they don’t show up on CAT scans or MRIs, and neither does lasting damage to nearby nerves and tissue. For chronic whiplash injuries, it’s necessary to seek cervical spine specialists.
Although there are treatments for whiplash injuries (pain medications, physical therapy, corticoid steroid injections, massage), the medical bills will not be cheap. Following a rear-end collision (or any motor vehicle accident), get evaluated by a trusted physician, and thoroughly document your injuries, both physical and psychological. Then seek the counsel of a good personal injury attorney, to navigate the insurance companies and the litigation stemming from your accident.