Common Neck Injuries From a Car Accident

Man with neck pain after a car accident

If you’ve been in a car accident, neck pain can start immediately or occur in the hours or days following the collision. Although many people have experienced a stiff neck before, the impact of an accident can cause far worse damage, making it critical to seek care immediately. 

Doing so allows doctors to determine if rest will do the trick or if stricter measures are needed. And, in Florida, you must seek medical care within 14 days of an accident to qualify for benefits so it is imperative to see a doctor in a timely manner. Learn what to expect after a car accident and your potential treatment options. 

What causes neck pain from an auto accident?

During a car accident, your neck may suddenly jerk forward and backward. With your body restrained by a seat belt, your neck takes the brunt of the force. Moreover, a collision may cause your neck to move from side to side forcefully. Or you may get hit by debris from inside or outside of the vehicle. 

If you realize an accident is about to occur, you may tense up your muscles increasing your risk of muscle strain. This forceful action can damage ligaments, muscles, discs, nerves, joints, tendons, or bones. 

Areas of the neck affected by a car accident

Your neck is a vulnerable and complex structure made up of seven small bones, called the cervical vertebra, residing in the spinal column. Between the bones, intervertebral discs separate each one, and facet joints connect the bones and allow you to pivot your head. 

Your musculoskeletal system supports your neck and skull while protecting the spinal cord. The neck is part of your backbone or spinal column, called the cervical spine. It’s broken down into two segments, the subaxial spine and the craniocervical junction (CCJ). 

Since the cervical discs are essentially shock absorbers, injuries to the discs occur frequently. However, your neck also contains many small tissues. Strained, torn, or stretched cervical ligaments can cause ongoing neck pain after a wreck. 

Car accident neck injury symptoms

After a collision, you may experience a range of symptoms, from minor pain or stiffness to excruciating pain or nausea. Furthermore, symptoms may not occur immediately. Delayed neck pain after a car accident is common. Symptoms may appear after two to four weeks. Symptoms of a neck injury after a car accident can consist of:

  • Being unable to turn your neck from side-to-side
  • Stiffness or a heavy feeling in your neck or head
  • Inability to look up or down without pain or at all
  • Throbbing pain
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness or nausea
  • Shooting pain
  • Tenderness in your neck or back of the skull
  • A sensation of chills or a fever
  • Pain that moves to your back or shoulder area
  • Feeling overly tired
  • Muscle spasms in your neck area
  • Problems with memory
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying focused
  • Mood changes such as anxiety, irritability, or depression
  • Numbness or tingling in your arms
  • Blurred visions or ringing in the ears

When should I be worried about a neck injury?

A neck injury can occur after any kind of impact on the body – whether in an auto accident, on the job, or during an athletic event. If neck pain is severe, and persists for several days, it’s important to see an orthopedic specialist as soon as possible to prevent further injury. Many insurance plans require that diagnosis and treatment be sought immediately after an accident.

Common neck injury risk factors

Trauma from a car accident is enough to cause damage. However, pre-existing conditions can contribute to or worsen a neck injury. Neck injury risk factors include:

  • Previous injury or trauma to the neck area
  • Trauma stemming from a high-speed crash
  • A job requiring repetitive neck movement
  • Poor posture or ergonomically-incorrect computer workstations
  • A history of neck arthritis or pain
  • Smoking 
  • Older age

9 Types of neck injuries after a car accident

An accident can cause injuries, even if it’s a minor collision. From rear-end to a side collision, the impact location may cause harm to different parts of your neck. 

1. Cervical Spondylolisthesis

The force of an accident may cause one or more of your vertebrae to slip out of alignment or dislocate. The resulting injury ranges from mild to severe. A vertebra may compress nerves or the spinal cord with slippage, causing pain to radiate to the back of your head or shoulders. 

2. Slipped or herniated disc 

The intervertebral discs in your cervical spine are jelly-filled and absorb shock to protect your vertebrae. During a collision, the discs may slip, rupture, herniate or bulge. Slippage may cause the disc to compress spinal cord nerves. 

In contrast, a bulge or rupture is when the jelly-like substance pushes out of the disc, crowding your vertebrae and compressing nerves. Disc injuries can cause pain in the neck or arms and/or numbness from the injury itself and from pinching or squeezing nerves. It’s common in side-impact crashes. 

3. Neck sprain or strain

Neck strains and sprains may present similar symptoms, but they’re different. A strain damages the facet joint, tendons, tissue that connects your bones to muscles, or injures your muscles. In contrast, sprains are torn ligaments, the soft tissue that connects bones to other bones. The result is often pain when moving your head or upper neck, reduced mobility, or muscle spasms.  

4. Pinched nerve

Many neck injuries can result in a pinched nerve. Damaged tissues, bones, discs, or tendons shift out of place and rub against or compress surrounding nerves causing severe pain and/or tingling and numbness. Pinched nerves are often associated with a muscle strain, sprain, or disc damage. 

5. Stiff muscles and tendons 

Neck pain caused by a car accident often leads to stiffness in the neck, which you may call a “crick in the neck.” It may hurt to move your head or keep your neck in the same position for a long time. 

6. Facet joint injury

Facet joints allow you to move your head and neck area freely. The facet joints in the neck also stabilize your head and neck. After a collision, your facet joints may get inflamed or irritated, resulting in pain. 

7. Neck fracture or compression

A fractured cervical spine, or a broken neck, is a serious injury requiring immediate medical care. A neck fracture means one or more of the seven neck bones is broken or has a crack. It can cause further damage to your spinal cord nerves, called a spinal cord injury. Paralysis or death may occur from a broken neck.   

8. Cuts and lacerations

Debris from a car accident may gouge your neck area. Superficial cuts may cause bruising and bleeding. However, lacerations are deep cuts that may require stitches and can damage neck tendons and ligaments. 

9. Muscle Spasms

Spasms are common car accident neck injury symptoms. But you may also experience twinges in your shoulders, back, and arms. In most cases, cramps occur because your muscles tensed up or were overstretched.  As a result, swelling and inflammation occur, affecting the nerves around the muscle. 

Your body attempts to protect hurt muscles by contracting and immobilizing the area. Your muscles may tighten and loosen in rapid succession, causing a large amount of pain. Since it takes time for inflammation to build up, delayed neck pain after a car accident often includes spasms. 

What is the most common neck injury after an auto accident? 

Whiplash is the most common post-accident neck injury. The neck contains joints called facets, which are responsible for the neck’s range of motion. A forceful, sudden hyperextension and hyperflexion (an abrupt back-and-forth movement) of the cervical vertebrae results in ligament sprains – called whiplash. This often occurs during an auto accident, especially a front-end or rear-end collision. 

Whiplash causes soft tissue damage that is often associated with other post-accident symptoms in the body. People may experience whiplash-associated disorders (WAD) for many years after an accident, so immediate treatment is recommended.

After a car accident: Neck pain diagnosis

Immediately following a car accident, you should be checked out by a physician. They may use X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to check for damaged soft tissues. Since neck injuries may also cause a concussion, doctors may monitor you for concussion symptoms, such as confusion, sleepiness, or trouble talking.

In most cases, a doctor will refer you to an orthopedic surgeon. This is because many symptoms, if left untreated, can cause chronic pain. 

How do you treat neck pain after an auto accident?

To avoid long-term complications from a neck injury, seeking immediate care is necessary. Although auto accident recovery can occur within a few weeks, some circumstances may lengthen the treatment and recovery period, such as: 

  • Not receiving immediate care after an injury to the neck
  • Severe damage to neck discs, joints, or ligaments
  • A spinal fracture 
  • Re-injuring the neck while still in recovery
  • Built-up inflammation 

Non-surgical treatment options

Your medical practitioner may recommend several non-surgical treatment options that you do at home or during a visit. If you feel discomfort, ask your medical provider how to relieve neck pain after a car accident. Standard neck injury treatment options include:

  • Apply ice to your neck for a couple of days following by moist heat after the swelling subsides
  • Take pain relievers, like acetaminophen or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs)
  • Short-term use of a neck brace or collar
  • Gentle stretching, massage, or chiropractic techniques
  • Physical therapy 
  • Epidural steroid injections (ESI)
  • Facet and medial branch blocks
  • Radiofrequency ablation (FRA)
  • Spinal cord stimulator

Surgical treatment options

For severe neck injuries, surgical treatment may be necessary. There are many types of treatment options that may be in or outpatient procedures. Your doctor will review your options with you to determine the best way to restore mobility and get you back to regular activities. Some surgical treatment options include:

  • Kyphoplasty: An outpatient procedure for fractured spine vertebrae
  • Microdiscectomy: A surgery that removes a disc or bone spur
  • Fusion surgery: A process that fuses discs to stabilize the neck
  • Robotic spine surgery: A surgical treatment for lumbar stenosis

Get help for your neck pain at Alexander Orthopaedics

Coping with a car accident can test you physically and emotionally.  The Alexander Orthopedics team can help you recover and get back to doing what you love. If you’re experiencing neck pain from an auto accident, schedule an appointment with Alexander Orthopaedics.