Common Car Accident Injuries
According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 2.3 million people in the United States are injured in car accidents every year. That’s almost as many people as the population of the city of Houston. Over 40,000 people died in car accidents in 2018, and car accidents are the leading cause of death among people under age 30.
Accident injuries vary in severity from minor to life-threatening. There are so many different types of injuries that can occur during a vehicle accident. Neck injuries are the most common but injuries to the back, head, arms and legs can occur as well. Severity of injuries can range from mild sprained ligaments or strained muscles, up to broken bones, paralysis or even death. If you’ve been injured in a car accident, seek medical attention right away.
Common Injuries in Car Accidents
There are 3 kinds of car accidents: side impacts (T-bone crashes), head-on collisions, and rear-end collisions. Each type of collision produces different forces that can affect the body in different ways.
Common Injuries in Car Crashes: Rear-End Collisions
Rear-end collisions create rapid backward and forward movements of the head and neck called ‘whiplash’. This can cause tearing in ligaments and muscles in the back and front of the neck.
Intervertebral discs, soft disc-like tissue that act as shock absorbers between spinal vertebrae, can also become injured. The rear impact forces can cause the occupant to actually move up, or ‘ramp up’, the seat back causing the neck to hyperextend up and over the head rest. The head rest becomes a fulcrum, creating extreme forces in the neck. In addition, rear-end impacts can cause the head, shoulders, arms, hands, knees or other body parts to be thrust forward into the dashboard, windshield or steering wheel.
Neck injuries, shoulder injuries and head injuries are the most common types of injuries in rear-end collisions. Only 3% of rear-end impacts are fatal.
Common Injuries in Car Crashes: Head-On Collisions
Frontal or head-on collisions generate the most force and are the most common type of car crash. These crashes generate so much force because the mass is the greatest in the front of the vehicle. Additionally, in a head-on collision both cars are moving towards each other, so they collide at a very high speed.
In frontal crashes, occupants in the vehicle continue to move forward until impact, then suddenly smash the inside of their own vehicle and bounce backward like a ball bouncing off a wall. The force can be double that of a rear-end impact. At the same time, crunch zones in the fronts of cars help absorb the impact, so these crashes can be less dangerous than other crashes like T-bone collisions.
The occupants in frontal collisions usually hit dashboards, windows, steering wheels or other objects in the vehicle. Head injuries, neck injuries and back injuries are very common injuries that occur in head-on collisions. 
Common Injuries in Car Crashes: T-Bone Collisions
Side impact collisions, also known as T-bone type collisions, are the most dangerous type of crashes because the sides of vehicles are thinner and less dense then the front or back of the vehicle. There is very little to protect occupants from the vehicle hitting them. The forces do not have to be great to cause life-threatening injuries. 
The body parts most affected are the head, neck, shoulder, elbow, low back, hip, and ribs. It is not uncommon to have internal organ damage from these accidents as well. Some of the most severe injuries I have treated have been caused by side impact collisions.
Most Common Car Accident Injuries
The most common car accident injuries are neck, back, head, knee, and shoulder injuries. Skull and brain injuries are the most dangerous, but you should see a licensed professional about every car accident injury you experience.
Neck Injuries In Car Accidents
The most common car accident injury is soft tissue injuries in the neck. Soft tissue refers to muscle and ligaments. During the accident, the rapid back-and-forth or side-to-side movements of the neck cause ligaments and muscles to over stretch and even tear. If the tearing of muscles or ligaments is severe, you will need surgical intervention. In many cases whiplash injuries can be effectively treated with chiropractic and physical therapy.
The rapid whiplash movement of the neck can also cause interverbal disc injuries or even fractures in the neck. Shearing forces can damage the intervertebral discs in the spine. Shearing forces are created when one vertebra moves faster than another.
Shearing occurs when one part of the body is pushed in one direction while another part of the body is pushed in another direction; this causes tearing. The ligaments and discs that connect the spinal vertebrae together tear because they can’t absorb the different forces.
Symptoms of neck injuries include: neck pain, pain or numbness down the arms, weakness in the neck or arms, muscle spasms, restricted movement and headaches. More serious injuries like paralysis can occur if the spinal cord becomes damaged. The spinal cord can be injured when spinal vertebra fracture and penetrate the spinal cord or spinal nerves.
The famous actor, Christopher Reeves, fell off a horse and fractured the 2nd vertebra in his neck. The fragments penetrated his spinal cord and caused permanent paralysis from the neck down. An auto accident can reproduce the same injuries as the fall that paralyzed Christopher Reeves. Spinal cord injuries can result in paralysis or even death.
Lower Back Injuries Resulting from Car Accidents
Low back injuries are a common car accident injury. Soft tissue injuries are the most common type of back injury in a car accident. Just like in neck injuries, shearing forces can cause low back discs, ligaments or muscles to tear. Bones in the low back can become fractured as well.
Many times, the front seat back will break upon impact. The broken seat back acts as a ramp causing the passenger to slide up the seat. This can put a lot of force on the back, leading to: low back pain, muscle spasm or tightness, restricted motion, and pain or numbness down the leg. More serious low back injury symptoms include the inability to control bowel or bladder functions, difficulty walking, weakness in the legs, numbness in the pelvic area, and numbness down the legs. If you experience severe low back pain or sexual dysfunction after a crash you should immediately go to an emergency room. This could be a serious spinal cord injury known as cauda equina syndrome which could result in permanent paralysis. Seek an immediate medical evaluation.
Head Injuries Resulting from Car Accidents
Head injuries are a common car accident injury as well. Head injuries can result from an occupant’s head hitting a window, steering wheel, car roof or dashboard. When the head hits any hard surface there is a risk of an open wound and bleeding.
Traumatic Brain Injuries
Bleeding around the head and neck can be serious, but brain injury is usually more serious. Brain injuries that are caused by physical force to the head and neck are called traumatic brain injuries. Traumatic brain injuries are caused by blunt force to the head, or by rapid high force movements that shake the brain inside the skull. So even if you don’t hit your head you can have a brain injury, because the sliding back and forth causes your brain to smash into the inside of your skull. The shaking force can be analogous to an egg being shaken and breaking the yolk inside.
Head injuries are serious. Sometimes blood vessels in the brain can break which can result in a life threating injury know as a brain bleed. Some symptoms include: headaches, dizziness, fogginess, memory problems, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, or ringing in the ears. If you suspect you or a loved one has a head injury from an automobile accident, you should seek an immediate medical evaluation and go to the nearest hospital emergency room. Most hospitals have experienced emergency room physicians that can properly evaluate and order vital testing such as CT scans and MRIs. Don’t wait – GET CHECKED!
Knee Injuries In Car Accidents
Knee injuries are another common car accident injury. Knee injuries can be caused when the knee strikes the dashboard, steering column or other objects. In other cases, car accidents can produce forces that cause the knee to twist or bend excessively. A knee injury could be caused by rear impact, side impact, roll over or frontal collisions. However, the most common type of accident that causes knee injuries is frontal crashes. (1).
There are many different types of knee injuries. Sprained knee ligaments are the most common knee injury. Sprained ligaments occur when ligaments are stretched or tear. Sprains are graded on a scale from 1-3, with 3 being the most severe. Injuries to the bursa of the knee occur when the bursa is stretched or is torn. Swelling and inflammation result. This is known as bursitis.
Knee joint dislocations are not as common, and occur when there is severe stretching or twisting. When an occupant’s knee smashes into the dashboard or other hard surface sometimes bones break. Impact to the knee cap, the tibia or femur can result in fracture. The meniscus, the ligamentous disc-like structure inside the knee, can also become damaged in a vehicle accident. Shearing forces created during the impact can cause tearing of the knee meniscus.
Seek immediate medical attention if: there is sudden or immediate swelling in the knee, the bones appear deformed or severely misaligned, there is significant difficulty bearing weight, bruising that does not resolve in 48 hours, the pain is intolerable, there is loss of sensation below the injury site, the foot and ankle are cold, and/or no pulse can be felt. Medical attention should be considered if a knee injury does not improve with routine home care and over-the-counter medications.
Chest and Sternum Injuries Resulting from Car Accidents
Chest and sternum injuries are common car accident injuries that usually occur when the driver is thrust into the steering wheel or a passenger’s chest hits the dashboard or seat back. These injuries can result in minor bruising or can be more serious. They can cause broken bones, collapsed lungs, damage to the heart, damage to internal organs or internal bleeding. Injuries to internal organs can be life threatening. People who have chest or abdominal pain after an accident should seek immediate medical attention.
Shoulder Injuries Resulting from Car Accidents
Shoulder injuries are common in auto accidents. The shoulder joint is one of the most unstable joints in the body and the easiest to injure. Shoulder injuries can occur when an occupant’s shoulder strikes the steering wheel, dashboard or seat back. Sometimes the seat belt shoulder harness can cause the unsecured shoulder to excessively rotate which can result in muscle or ligament injury. Another common shoulder injury occurs when a driver or passenger extends their arms to brace for the accident. When the occupant outstretches their arm, the shoulder joint absorbs the force of the impact. Ligament tears, muscle tears, broken bones and/or joint damage can occur.
Common Injuries in Car Crashes: Risk Factors
It can seem puzzling how the same crash can affect each occupant differently. Some people are more suspectable to injury than others. For instance, stronger, larger, and more muscular individuals can handle more force from an accident than weaker, smaller individuals.
Each person is different and the forces on the body affect people differently. Risk factors will increase the chances that an occupant will sustain injury. Someone is more likely to be hurt in a car accident if they: are female, have a history of prior injury, are less muscular, have a low positioned head restraint, are not sitting straight and looking forward at the time of impact, are not aware of the impending impact, are above middle aged, are involved in a frontal collision, or are struck by a vehicle of greater mass. Those factors will account for an occupant sustaining more injury than another person.
The Long-Term Impact of Car Accident Injuries
According to the Spine Research Institute of San Diego, 10-12% of injured vehicle accident victims will become disabled. The pain and physical limitations also predispose an individual to emotional stress and even depression. Even non-disabled accident victims can still experience emotional stress and anxiety after an accident. Emotional effects of car accident injuries are often overlooked, but need to be addressed.
What Can I Do To Avoid an Auto Accident?
Hollywood movies have desensitized the public to car accidents. Too many people underestimate the effects of auto accidents until they get into one themselves. There are things we can do to minimize the risk of injury. Properly maintaining your vehicle, purchasing a vehicle that has a better crash test rating, avoiding driving and texting, obeying traffic laws, being aware of other vehicles, and driving more cautiously in bad weather can help protect you.
What to Do If You’ve Been Injured
There is no way to guarantee you won’t get into an auto accident, but If you do, call 911 immediately. Notifying first responders is important especially if you have a serious injury. Head injuries, injuries to internal organs, internal bleeding, open wounds and spinal cord injuries all need to be treated quickly. Staying in the vehicle is usually the best advice unless the vehicle is putting you in further danger.
Avoid movement if you believe you might have a spinal cord injury. Movement of the neck or back might cause further damage or even paralysis. Most injuries are not life-threatening; however it is still important that if you are injured you get checked. Even soft tissue injuries can require medical treatment. Many minor injuries can get worse and can lead to chronic pain if not treated. Make sure you see a healthcare provider who has extensive experience treating vehicle accident injuries, such as Dr. Craig Selinger.
- Croft, Arthur (2009). Whiplash and Mild Traumatic Brain Injuries A guide for Patients and Practictioners. San Diego Ca. SRISD Press Pg. 112-116.