What Are the Long-Term Effects of Untreated Whiplash Injuries?
Fact checked by Clayton Hasbrook J.D. | Updated on May 24, 2016
A soft tissue injury is an injury that affects muscles, ligaments, and tendons — essentially, tissue other than bone. Whiplash, a soft tissue injury of the neck, is extremely common in car accident victims. Unfortunately, whiplash is often dismissed as a minor or self-repairing injury, which is not always the case. If an accident victim does not receive proper medical care for a whiplash injury, he or she risks developing serious complications later down the road. If you believe you may be suffering from a whiplash injury caused by a crash or collision, you should contact our car accident lawyers about getting compensated for your medical bills and other financial losses.
How Do Car Accidents Cause Neck Injuries?
If you thought you didn’t need to worry about whiplash because your accident was minor, think again. Medical research, such as this study published in European Spine Journal, has shown that whiplash is possible at speeds as low as roughly nine miles per hour (15 kilometers per hour).
Whiplash most often occurs in rear-end collisions. When the striking vehicle impacts the front vehicle, the force of impact propels the front vehicle occupants forward, causing a violent back-and-forth motion of the neck. This motion rapidly overextends the neck’s muscles and ligaments, pushing them beyond their limits and causing them to stretch or even tear completely.
A stretched or torn muscle is commonly called a strain, while a stretched or torn ligament is called a sprain. Therefore, whiplash is sometimes described as a cervical strain or cervical sprain, where the term “cervical” simply refers to the neck.
While most likely to occur in a rear-end collision, whiplash can result from virtually any type of crash. In fact, whiplash is more common than any other type of car accident injury in the United States. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), “Neck sprains and strains, commonly known as whiplash, are the most frequently reported injuries in U.S. insurance claims. In 2007,” the IIHS continues, “the cost of claims in which neck pain was the most serious injury was about $8.8 billion, or 25% of the total payout for crash injuries.”
For a visual breakdown, take a look at our neck pain infographic (which, just as the IIHS reports, found neck pain to be more common than any other type of crash injury). You might also be interested in finding out how much a neck injury is worth.
What Can Happen if Whiplash is Not Treated Properly?
Because whiplash is a soft tissue injury and not a bone fracture, it doesn’t show up clearly on X-rays, MRI scans, or CT scans. Insurance companies are notorious for claiming that whiplash injuries “aren’t real,” or aren’t actually as serious as the injury victim says they are.
Contrary to these dismissive (and inaccurate) claims, moderate to severe whiplash is capable of producing painful and pronounced symptoms that make normal motion completely impossible. Many patients require pain medication, foam collars, physical therapy, or even trigger point injections. “The absence of abnormality on an X-ray does not mean there’s an absence of reason to hurt,” says Emory University professor of orthopedic (musculoskeletal) surgery John Heller, MD.
The adrenaline rush released in an emergency situation masks pain, which means many accident victims do not feel hurt immediately after an accident occurs. But after several hours or days have passed, the victim may begin to notice whiplash symptoms such as:
- Neck pain, which may radiate through the back and upper shoulders. The pain will probably be accompanied by stiffness, swelling, and a reduced range of motion. The person may also experience headaches or pain at the base of the skull.
- Tinnitus, where the patient hears nonexistent noises. Tinnitus usually sounds like ringing in your ears, but can also cause the patient to perceive hissing, static, or humming noises.
- Vertigo, a condition where a person feels like they are falling or spinning in a still environment. The person may also get dizzy or feel faint.
It is always a good idea to see a doctor within 72 hours of a car accident, even if you don’t believe your injuries are serious. If you delay medical care, the insurance company may use the delay as an excuse to deny coverage. Even more importantly, you want to avoid the serious, long-term complications that can develop if an injury — including whiplash — is not promptly diagnosed and treated.
If a whiplash injury goes untreated, you’re at increased risk for experiencing chronic pain long after the injury occurs. The vast majority of whiplash patients begin to see improvements within several weeks or months of the injury — but for those who don’t, chronic stiffness and discomfort can persist for longer than a year. A study published in the medical journal Neurology found that 7.8% of the study participants “had not returned to usual level of activity or work” after one year due to issues like pain and stiffness.
If you were recently in a car accident and are now suffering from neck pain, you may have a claim for injury compensation. To learn more about your legal options in a free and confidential legal consultation, call Hasbrook & Hasbrook at (405) 698-3040. We handle claims throughout the Oklahoma City area, including Edmond, Norman, El Reno, Tuttle, Moore, McLoud, and more.