Whiplash gets a bad rap. Insurers and defense lawyers often act dismissively toward accident victims who complain of whiplash injuries. Soft tissue injuries like whiplash usually do not appear on X-rays and MRIs. As a result, insurers suspect that accident victims make up or exaggerate them to try to inflate their claims.
But these injuries are real. They can produce severe pain and mobility limitations. They can co-occur with other serious injuries like concussions. These injuries might require medical treatment and physical therapy. They could also interfere with your ability to earn a living while you recover.
What Is the Structure of Your Neck?
Your neck includes the top seven vertebrae of your spine. This section, called your cervical spine, supports your head and brain. It also provides movement, from nodding to turning your head.
Each vertebra includes a body and several processes protruding from it. The bodies stack on top of each other to form the spinal column. The spinous process provides an anchor point for ligaments holding vertebrae together. Neck muscles also attach to the spinous process through tendons.
The vertebrae protect the spinal cord. Specifically, the spinal cord runs through a canal formed when the vertebrae align. A pair of nerve roots branches from the spinal cord at each vertebra. These nerve roots innervate the muscles and organs of your body. They also carry sensory signals from your body to your brain. Every sensation, from temperature to pain, travels this way.
Collagen discs separate the vertebrae. The discs cushion the cervical spine by preventing the vertebrae from grinding against each other. Each disc has a durable outer shell called the annulus fibrosus. Inside the shell sits the gel-like nucleus pulposus.
What Are Whiplash Injuries?
Whiplash is a term for injuries that happen when the head whips back and forth, damaging the neck. Most people associate whiplash with car accidents. Your body moves at the same speed and direction before and after a collision. The seat belt stops your body, but you have nothing to stop your head, so it whips forward, pulling your neck.
Whiplash can also happen in other kinds of traumatic incidents. For example, in a slip and fall accident, you fall backward as your feet slip forward. When you fall onto your back, your head whips back and pulls on your neck.
The average human head weighs about 11 pounds. To understand the forces exerted on your neck, imagine a one-gallon can of paint. If you were to swing a paint can, the force on your arm is roughly equivalent to the force on your neck during whiplash.
When your head whips forward, your neck hyperextends. The cervical vertebrae separate, pulling the neck ligaments and tendons. As your neck whips backward, the cervical spine compresses. The vertebrae crash toward each other and squeeze the discs.
What Are Some Examples of Whiplash Injuries?
Whiplash injuries can result from damage to a variety of neck structures. Some common whiplash injuries include the following:
Strains happen when muscles and tendons hyperextend.
The stretching and tearing these structures experience can produce:
- Muscle pain
- Swelling and stiffness
- Muscle spasms
A strained neck usually heals in four to six weeks. Your doctor will likely prescribe rest, ice packs, and anti-inflammatory medication while you recover.
Sprains occur when you hyperextend the ligaments connecting your vertebrae. While some people confuse sprains and strains, you will experience slightly different symptoms. You might feel a popping in your neck when you sprain it.
Also, a sprain will cause:
- Spine pain
- Limited range of neck movement
A mild sprain will typically take four to six weeks to heal. You might need several months to recover from a severe sprain. You may also need physical therapy to build up the muscles in your neck to support your head while you heal.
Your discs can deform when the spine compresses. A herniated disc happens when the annulus fibrosus separates and allows the nucleus pulposus to squeeze out. A bulging disc occurs when the annulus fibrosus weakens and flattens like a pancake.
In either case, the disc shortens. Everything shifts out of place, stressing your back muscles, tendons, and ligaments. You will experience back pain and instability.
But the more serious symptoms happen when the deformed discs press on nerve roots. Nerve compression causes inflammation.
Inflamed nerves misfire, causing symptoms such as:
- Pain that radiates into your limbs
- Loss of fine motor functions
Doctors can treat nerve inflammation by injecting anti-inflammatories into the region. If this treatment fails, doctors cannot repair the damaged disc. Instead, they must remove it. After a discectomy, doctors can either fuse the adjacent vertebrae or replace the disc with an artificial one.
When your spine compresses during whiplash, the vertebrae can fracture. If the body fractures, bone fragments can work into the spinal canal and sever the spinal cord. When a process fractures, the ligaments cannot hold the vertebra in place, and it can dislocate into the spinal cord.
When the spinal cord gets severed, you will experience permanent paralysis and loss of sensation below the injury. Thus, a spinal cord injury in the neck can cause tetraplegia, leaving you unable to voluntarily control the upper or lower parts of your body.
A concussion is not necessarily a whiplash injury. But the same whipping forces that cause whiplash can also cause a concussion.
Concussions are mild brain injuries that happen when your brain gets shaken. The cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and meninges protecting the brain prevent it from hitting the inside of your skull. But the force they exert on it can damage the brain cells. In response to the tissue damage, the brain inflames.
This brain inflammation causes symptoms such as:
- Slurred speech
- Blurry vision or seeing stars
Concussion symptoms usually last less than two months. Occasionally, victims will suffer from symptoms that last longer. This post-concussion syndrome can produce symptoms that last for months or even years.
How Can I Get Compensation For a Whiplash Injury?
You can seek compensation for whiplash injuries that resulted from someone else’s negligent or intentional conduct.
To prove intentional conduct, you must show that the other person intended to make harmful contact with you. For example, suppose that you were involved in a road rage incident where the other driver tried to bump your car. You can prove they acted intentionally, even if they did not intend to hurt you.
To prove negligence, you must prove that the other person failed to exercise reasonable care and, as a result, caused your injuries. Thus, a driver who ran a stop sign and hit your car acted negligently.
Whiplash injuries can disable you from working or even getting out of bed. Contact Curiel & Runion Personal Injury Lawyers at (602) 595-5559 for a free consultation to discuss the effects of your whiplash injuries and how we can help you seek compensation for them.