Whiplash is a type of neck injury commonly caused by sudden acceleration and deceleration forces typical in car accidents. It can cause damage to various structures in the cervical spine (c-spine), including the nerves. Here are some ways nerves the spine can be damaged by whiplash following a car accident:
- First, some mechanics of a Whiplash Injury: When a vehicle is suddenly hit from behind or involved in a rear-end collision, the body is thrust forward while the head remains momentarily behind due to inertia. This results in the characteristic rapid “whipping” motion of the neck, where it extends backward and then flexes forward abruptly. The extreme movements can strain or damage the various structures in the cervical spine, including the nerves.
- Stretching or Compression: During the whiplash motion, the nerves in the c-spine can be subjected to stretching or compression forces. As the neck extends backward and flexes forward rapidly, the nerves can be stretched beyond their normal range of motion or compressed between bony structures such as vertebrae or discs.
- Direct Trauma to Nerves: In certain cases, the nerves themselves can be directly injured by the forces exerted during the accident. This can occur if the nerves are crushed, lacerated, or pinched between fractured or dislocated vertebrae.
- Soft Tissue Damage: Alongside nerve injury, whiplash can also lead to damage to the soft tissues surrounding the nerves, such as muscles, ligaments, and discs. The inflammation and swelling resulting from these injuries can put additional pressure on the nerves, exacerbating the damage.
- Radiculopathy: One common condition resulting from nerve damage in the c-spine is radiculopathy. It occurs when the nerves become inflamed, irritated, or compressed, leading to pain, tingling, numbness, or weakness radiating down the arm. This can happen when the nerve roots that exit the spinal cord from the cervical segments are affected.
- Cervical Spinal Stenosis: Whiplash can also worsen pre-existing conditions like cervical spinal stenosis, which is the narrowing of the spinal canal in the c-spine. The abrupt movement can further compress the already compromised nerve structures, increasing the risk and severity of nerve damage.
It’s important to note that the specifics of nerve damage in whiplash injuries can vary depending on the individual case. There are different classifications of head injuries including whiplash called WAD injuries. You can read more about WAD here. (We also have a video explanation of WAD injuries.) It’s recommended that anyone experiencing symptoms after a car accident, particularly involving the neck, immediately seek medical evaluation and appropriate treatment. After you contact your insurance company, we recommend consulting an injury lawyer who represent your best interests.