What you should know about whiplash and other head injuries caused by a car accident.

Whiplash affects about one million people every year in the US. It’s most commonly associated with car accidents but can occur any time the neck muscles are pulled forward with significant force. During car crashes, it usually happens when the car stops very suddenly or is rear-ended. This leads to the accident victim’s head snapping forward and back, putting strain on the neck muscles. Unfortunately, this chain of events can cause damage to the bones, discs, muscles, and nerves in the neck and head region, leading to pain, stiffness, and discomfort.

There are often misconceptions about whiplash. Many think it only happens in car accidents where the car was going very fast or hit hard, but this isn’t true. We’ve seen clients who developed whiplash from accidents where the vehicle was moving around 5 MPH. Several situations put you at increased risk of developing whiplash:

  • Not wearing a seat belt. Being unrestrained can cause your head to jerk forward farther and harder than if you were wearing a seat belt. Wearing a seat belt can reduce the risk of a whiplash injury.
  • Older or less active people are at higher risk of whiplash. As the body ages, muscles, discs, and ligaments become less flexible and resilient, which increases the risk of getting whiplash when the neck muscles are placed under strain. Regular exercise can help slow this process and keep muscles more flexible, so if you’re unable to exercise for any reason, you may also be at increased risk.
  • A poorly-adjusted headrest on your car seat. If it’s too low, your head can be thrown backward in the event of a crash. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recommends adjusting the headrest, so it’s at least up to your head’s center of gravity (around 3 to 5 inches down from the top of your head). Older cars may not have adjustable headrests, but newer models do.
  • Being in a rear-end crash. This type of accident frequently throws the driver and passengers forward with a high level of force, creating the ideal situation for whiplash to occur.

What Should You Do After An Accident Where Your Head Has Snapped Forward?

Always let the paramedics check you out, even if you think you’re okay. You should also remember that whiplash pain may not happen immediately after the accident. Sometimes it may take a few hours or even a few days to show up. Even if you think you’ve escaped injury, be on the lookout for the following symptoms:

  • Pain, stiffness, or discomfort in the neck, shoulders, arms, jaw, or back. This can be confusing, as pain can radiate to nearby areas, and sometimes people think whiplash only means pain in the neck. If you develop pain in nearby areas, be sure to tell your doctor.
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness or vertigo
  • Blurred vision
  • Tingling or numbness that may extend into the arms, hands, or shoulders
  • Trouble with concentration or memory
  • Being nervous or easily agitated
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Burning or prickling feelings around the neck, shoulders, or arms.

One of the reasons it’s important to seek a qualified medical opinion is because some of these symptoms can also indicate other serious problems, like a concussion or traumatic brain injury (TBI). We’ll talk more about head injuries a little later in this article.

Your doctor will likely run some tests to rule out issues like a cervical fracture or head injury, including X-rays, an MRI, or a CT scan. Soft tissue injuries don’t generally show up on these, but if no other issues appear, a doctor will likely conclude that your pain is due to whiplash.

What Kind Of Treatment Is Available For Whiplash?

Most people recover within a few days to a few weeks with some rest. For the first 24 hours, applying ice to the affected area is recommended. After that, applying heat is usually more beneficial. However, if your pain is severe, your doctor may be able to prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs or other medication to reduce the pain and help you sleep. You should return to normal activities as soon as your doctor says it’s okay, as getting moving can actually help you heal faster and feel better sooner.

Many people expect they will need a stiff cervical collar, which fits around the neck and helps reduce movement. These used to be commonly prescribed to patients with whiplash, but doctors no longer believe they’re helpful to most patients with this condition.

While most cases clear up on their own, a smaller percentage of patients continue to have pain and need treatment several months or even years later. If your pain becomes chronic, you may need to see a specialist, like an orthopedist, a chiropractor, or a physical therapist. Sometimes these experts can prescribe exercises, medication, or other treatments to provide symptom relief. However, this repeated medical care can grow expensive quickly. If you find yourself struggling with healthcare bills after an accident, you may benefit from speaking with a car accident attorney.

Head Injuries in Car Accidents

Head injuries are also common in car accidents. Sadly, head trauma can be one of the most difficult types of injuries to recover from. Some patients do recover with treatment, but for others, there may not be anything the doctors can do to restore lost brain function. Because the brain communicates with the entire body, symptoms can vary widely, and for some patients, may be permanent.

What Is Traumatic Brain Injury, Or TBI?

According to the CDC, a traumatic brain injury or TBI is any injury that changes how the brain operates. It is caused either by a hard blow to the head (like you might get in a car accident) or a penetrating wound (such as a gunshot, or in rare cases, a stab wound to the head). Around 25 percent of TBI-related hospitalizations are attributed to motor vehicle accidents.

Patients with mild TBIs are more likely to recover fully. Those with moderate to severe TBIs may need to spend several days or weeks in the hospital and may need ongoing care for some time. They are more likely to suffer permanent symptoms and disability as a result of their injury.

If you’ve hit your head in a car accident or even felt it snap back and forward hard, you should see a doctor right away, no matter how you feel. Not only could you have whiplash, but you could have suffered a TBI or an even more serious type of head injury, such as a brain bleed. There have been cases where a person died of a treatable brain injury simply because they thought they were okay and didn’t seek medical treatment. These situations are rare, but it’s best to see a doctor and be sure.

Treatment for TBI

Mild cases of TBI usually get better on their own, with rest and pain relievers for the headache. Moderate to severe cases may require treatment in a hospital. Typically the doctors will focus on making sure the patient is getting enough oxygen, has good blood circulation, and avoids any further injuries to the brain. If the TBI has resulted in complications like a brain bleed, a blood clot in the brain (or stroke), or increased pressure in the brain, doctors may perform surgery or use medication to reduce the risk of permanent brain damage. For example, if the head injury causes seizures, they may use anti-seizure medication to reduce the risk of permanent brain injury while the patient recovers.

As the patient recovers from a serious TBI, they will often need to do rehabilitation therapy to re-learn skills they may have lost to their injury, like walking or talking. Typically this process begins in the hospital, then when the patient is well enough to be released, they are transferred to an in-patient rehab facility, or sent home with instructions to visit an outpatient center regularly. They may need to be evaluated multiple times by many different kinds of rehabilitative specialists, including occupational and physical therapists, physiatrists, speech or language therapists, neuropsychologists, vocational counselors, and social workers. This team of professionals will work together to help the patient recover as much function as possible, and find ways to continue their usual activities as much as possible, making adjustments as needed.

Rehabilitation therapy is helpful for most patients. Even if they don’t recover fully, they may learn new skills or find resources to help them cope with symptoms or disabilities. Unfortunately, this kind of therapy is also very expensive, and not always covered by insurance. Many insurance carriers, for example, will only pay for twenty physical therapy sessions in a calendar year. This might be sufficient for someone with a simple arm fracture or torn ligament. But for a patient who is relearning how to walk about a severe head injury, it may mean they have to stop treatment just as they’re starting to make real progress. 

You can and should appeal the health insurance company’s decision, but this can take weeks or months. Also, it may be difficult to do a task like writing a letter to your insurance company while recovering from a brain injury. A friend or relative may be able to help you with the submission process, but there isn’t much you can do to hurry the decision along. Meanwhile, you may be losing momentum on your recovery.

If you or a loved one are struggling to pay for rehabilitation or other medical care you need following a car accident, you should speak with a car accident attorney right away. You may have other options for covering these bills, including filing a claim with the at-fault driver’s car insurance, suing the driver directly, or in some cases, filing a claim against other third parties who may have contributed to the crash.

Most people with TBIs see at least some improvement with rehabilitative therapies. However, some may still have permanent symptoms or become permanently disabled and lose the ability to earn an income. Again, the range of persistent TBI symptoms is very broad, and often depends on the areas of the brain affected. Here are some potential symptoms that may become permanent:

  • Dizziness, vertigo, or tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • Headaches, which may range from mild to debilitating and may or may not respond to medication
  • Speech challenges – some people may have permanent problems with slurred speech or difficulty finding the right words when talking
  • Walking – some people may develop a permanent gait problem or limp, especially if their brain injury results in weakness on one side of the body
  • Loss of manual dexterity in one or both hands, leading to difficulty with activities requiring fine motor control
  • Cognitive or memory problems, including difficulty with short-term memory, trouble concentrating or struggling with mental tasks
  • Sensitivity to light and/or sound, or other sensory issues
  • Vision troubles, such as blurred or double vision
  • Fatigue or sleep disorders
  • Mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, or PTSD
  • Seizures or post-traumatic epilepsy

If you’ve suffered a TBI, concussion, or another brain injury, you deserve compensation for your medical bills (both current and future costs). That includes pain and suffering, lost wages for days you missed at work, lost earning potential if you are permanently disabled and can’t work anymore, property damage, and permanent disability or scarring. However, insurance companies are never eager to provide you with a fair settlement. They may deny your claim on various grounds, or offer you far less than it is worth. The best thing you can do is contact an attorney to better understand your rights and choices.

If you or a loved one have suffered whiplash, head injuries, or other injuries in a car accident, please contact Auger and Auger Accident and Injury Lawyers for a free consultation. We’ll go over your case, answer your questions, and explain your options for seeking damages. There’s no obligation, and if you choose to let us represent you, we have a zero fee guarantee – if we don’t win your case, we won’t charge you any fees. Call (855) 971-1114 or contact us online today.