Long a target of jokes, whiplash has been used to poke fun at personal injury lawyers and victims of car crashes alike. But if there is one thing the jokes get right, it’s that whiplash is, indeed, a real pain in the neck — and it requires real treatment.
No matter how minor your crash may initially seem, any time you have been the victim of a car accident, you could be at risk for neck and back injuries like whiplash that worsen over time or even cause lifelong impacts. Speaking with a personal injury attorney soon after your wreck is not always a step toward filing a lawsuit. But it is a step toward educating yourself about your options when it comes to getting medical care and paying the costs, protecting yourself during insurance claims, and advocating for yourself throughout the process of recovery.
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What Is Whiplash?
Whiplash is a neck injury that results from a forceful, quick “whipping” forward-to-back motion of the neck, hence the name. Often initially overlooked by those involved in a car crash, especially in accidents that might seem minor, whiplash and other pain-causing spinal injuries affect more than two million Americans a year. Whiplash damages the soft tissue and bone structures in the neck, and in serious whiplash cases, it damages the joints where the vertebrae connect. This can result in chronic inflammation that may never go away.
Symptoms of whiplash include:
- Neck pain and stiffness
- Pain in the shoulder, upper back, or arms
- Tingling or numbness in the arms
Even less severe accidents can cause serious injuries to areas of soft tissue like your neck and back, and symptoms initially may be subtle or may not be immediately apparent at all. With 12 percent of car accident victims diagnosed with whiplash, the odds are unfortunately pretty good that you will need to seek medical treatment immediately even after a fender bender.
How Long Does Whiplash Last?
Many whiplash cases do resolve in just a few weeks with medical treatment, but some are more serious and can cause a lifetime of pain and complications, especially if not treated early on. So what makes whiplash so serious?
Your neck has a big job. Not only does it support the head, which weighs in around an astonishing 10 to 11 pounds, but it also supports the cervical spine and contributes to your ability to move your neck, upper back, and shoulders. Your neck also helps you swallow, breathe, and even stay upright on two feet by stabilizing the upper region of your body. It takes 26 muscles to do all this work, and along with those muscles come tendons, which connect muscles to bone.
Like a good workout strains your muscles in a way you might appreciate, whiplash strains those neck muscles, and like any muscle pain, it can take time to start hurting. This is because of something called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Not only does it take time to start hurting, but the pain can be the worst on the second day.
By the time some people start experiencing this soreness, they may already be overwhelmed with trying to figure out how to recover from other injuries, the financial loss of a wrecked car, missed work, and all the other stressors of being in a wreck. Even when people feel whiplash pain immediately, they may not expect that its effects can be so serious or long-lasting.
How Is Whiplash Diagnosed?
Your doctor will need to diagnose your whiplash injury to determine the current severity of your injury and the best course of treatment. The first steps will be to evaluate your injury through a variety of diagnostic techniques.
- Physical exam: Along with asking you questions that will help your doctor to better understand your pain, they will examine you. This might mean carefully manipulating your neck or asking you to move your shoulders, head, or other parts of your body so they can assess your range of motion. These and follow-up examinations are important so that you will have a record of your doctor’s expertise when it comes to changes in your condition.
- X-rays: One of the top medical programs in the country, Johns Hopkins, reminds victims of car accidents and others suffering from whiplash that X-rays do not show the soft tissue damage associated with these kinds of injuries, but they are still important. X-rays can determine the presence of existing arthritis or degeneration, which may be aggravated by a car accident, or any fractures.
- CT scans: You may be asked to do a CT scan, which will use a combination of an X-ray and a computer to create pictures of your neck region, including your bones and soft tissue.
- MRI: The most likely imaging diagnostic tool likely to show the extent of whiplash injuries, MRIs have been used successfully to detect the exact location of injury and allow it to be repaired.
While imaging can help diagnose your injury, whiplash is unfortunately not guaranteed to show up on even an MRI. But that does not mean it is not there. Following your doctor’s requests for follow-up imaging and appointments is important for your health and the course of your care, especially if the initial treatments do not help.
How Do You Treat Whiplash After a Car Accident?
Treating whiplash can be complicated, even for minor cases. Many people think their mild soreness will go away with time or rest, and that can be true, but too much rest can actually delay your recovery.
The goals of treating whiplash are to control your pain, restore your normal range of neck motion, and get you back to your life as soon as possible. To do this, your doctor will create a treatment plan for you.
- Pain management: Options for pain management depend on the severity of your injury, your existing medical history, and other decisions made by you and your doctor. These can include rest, heat or cold, over-the-counter pain medication, prescription pain medication, muscle relaxants, or injections.
- Exercise: Your doctor will help you understand what kinds of movement you should do to help your body heal and strengthen, depending on your specific injury.
- Physical therapy: For more severe and long-lasting injuries, a physical therapy program may be needed. The length of time and frequency of your physical therapy will depend on your injury, but it is important that you stick with it, from both a medical and a legal perspective.
- Mental health: Not only are car accidents themselves potentially devastating to your mental health, but research has shown that people with chronic whiplash injuries show a higher rate of post-traumatic stress and depression. Developing a plan for emotional wellness in the aftermath of your physical injury can be crucial to a full recovery.
Seeking medical care immediately after a crash not only allows your doctor to provide the best course of treatment, but it is important from a legal perspective, too. When you don’t get medical care right away and file a lawsuit against the people who caused your injury, their lawyers might use your lack of seeking medical care to reduce their liability by claiming that you:
- Were not really injured but decided later on to sue
- Had existing injuries that were not impacted by the wreck
- Made your own minor injuries worse through your own actions
What Back Injuries Can You Get from a Car Crash?
Along with whiplash injuries to the neck, car accidents cause a number of back injuries. These spinal injuries can result in a lifetime of pain and need for care, and they often change with time. Here are the most common back injuries associated with car accidents.
- Spinal fractures or dislocations: Spinal fractures occur when a part of the bone experiences intense pressure, causing it to break, fracture, or even shatter. Spinal dislocations occur when the ligaments surrounding the vertebrae are torn or stretched and the bone slips out of place.
- Herniated or bulging discs: Discs are the cushions that sit between the vertebrae of the spine. When they shift or tear, they put pressure on surrounding nerves, causing often intense and debilitating pain.
- Spinal stenosis: The space around the spinal column can narrow, causing pressure on the nerves that results in pain, numbness, or other symptoms. While this commonly happens naturally as people age, an accident can aggravate the condition.
- Spinal cord injuries: Less common than other neck and back injuries, spinal cord damage can result in loss of mobility and paralysis. Damaged spinal cords cannot be repaired, so treatment focuses on rehabilitative therapy and, when necessary, pain management.
Many people hope that once they are diagnosed with a neck or back injury, they will have a grasp of what to expect. But the reality is that once you are injured, you have a good chance of getting worse with time, resulting in additional medical needs and costs. Even if you are in a good position now to cover the cost of your medical treatment, that could change in the future.
Is It Worth It to Sue for Whiplash?
Few people enjoy the idea of having to deal with insurance companies, let alone lawsuits. But when you have been injured by someone else, you should not have to bear the high costs of recovery.
Every injury case is different, but when calculating neck and back injury compensation, it’s important to look at the whole picture. What kind of medical care will you need? How has your ability to earn an income been impacted? Do you need long-term care? Are you in constant pain? Will your injuries ever improve? Your lawsuit will address how your life has and will change and what areas are impacted. The circumstances that affect the amount of financial recovery you can expect to receive include:
- Recovery time and severity of your injury. People who recover quickly and fully from car accident-related spine injuries can expect to see a smaller settlement amount than someone with severe or permanent injuries. Your medical professionals will use their expertise to predict the trajectory of your recovery and medical needs, which will play a substantial role in calculating your settlement amount.
- Lost income and reduced capacity to work. In addition to accounting for lost earnings, your lawyer may consult with vocational experts to understand how your injury may have impacted your ability to work in the future or your longevity in a job that requires physical stamina. Victims of car accidents typically miss a substantial amount of work, starting immediately after the wreck, which can also be accounted for in your recovery amount.
- Paralysis or loss of mobility. If serious spinal cord injuries result in paralysis or loss of motor functions, your needs are likely to go beyond medical treatment. In addition to consulting with your medical providers, your lawyer will consult with a life-care planner to understand the long-term costs you will incur. These include home healthcare, house adaptations, adaptable transport, housekeeping services, and any other compensable services you may need to maximize your recovery.
- Impact on quality of life. Even neck and back injuries that an insurance company would classify as “minor” and use to devalue your claim can have a lasting and meaningful impact on your quality of life. The more your injury has reduced your ability to do necessary tasks or engage in activities you enjoy, the more your lawyer can advocate for a higher recovery.
How Can FVF Help After a Car Accident?
Often, the worse your injuries are, the higher the potential amount of compensation. However, that means that insurance companies — even your own — and other legally responsible parties are going to fight even harder to get you to settle for less than the actual value of your case. This recovery is what you can use to pay for your medical care and work to maintain as high a quality of life as possible with your injuries.
FVF wants victims of car accidents to be empowered, equipped with the knowledge they need to make decisions about what is best for them. We don’t take cases if we don’t believe it’s worth it for you to hire a lawyer, but even if we don’t represent you, information and education are two of the strongest tools we can help you with when it’s time to take back your life after an accident. Contact us today to get started.