The term “whiplash” has a bad connotation. It seems like a made-up word to describe a made-up injury. Personal injury lawyers are even called “whiplash lawyers” by their detractors.
But whiplash injuries are real. And they cause accident victims real pain. They can even cause neck and spinal cord injuries severe enough to cause a long-term disability.
Here are some facts to know about a whiplash injury and the compensation you can get for its effects.
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What is the Function and Structure of Your Neck?
Your neck supports the weight of your head. But your neck also has the flexibility to bend and twist so you can tilt and turn your head.
It does this through seven vertebrae that sit at the top of your spine. Ligaments hold your vertebrae together. Ligaments also hold your skull to your spine.
With the structure provided by the ligaments, these seven vertebrae form a strong column when they align. This column, also called the cervical spine, supports your eleven-pound head.
Discs sit between each pair of vertebrae. These discs cushion the vertebrae and give them a tough, smooth surface on which to move. Without the discs, the vertebrae would grind against each other whenever you nodded or shook your head.
The discs allow your neck muscles to move your head smoothly. These neck muscles connect to your shoulder blades, vertebrae, collarbones, and skull through tendons.
Your spinal cord travels through the spinal canal, an opening in the vertebrae where the spinal cord’s nerves can sit. The spine protects the spinal cord from direct impacts.
In the cervical spine, the spinal cord branches into nerve roots that further branch into peripheral nerves in the shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers. These nerve roots carry motor signals from the brain to your upper limbs and sensory signals, like pressure, texture, and temperature, back to your brain.
How Does a Whiplash Injury Happen?
A whiplash injury happens when rapid acceleration and deceleration hyperextend your neck. This happens most often in a car accident. But it can also occur when you hit the ground after a slip and fall accident, a pedestrian accident, a motorcycle accident, or a bicycle accident.
Upon impact, your body keeps moving at the same speed and in the same direction as it was before the collision until something forces it to move in a different direction.
As your body changes direction and speed, your neck must pull your head along with your body. But your head weighs about the same as a medium bowling ball. As your neck pulls your head, it stretches.
When your body comes to a stop, your neck compresses. The weight of your head now crushes your neck. Your head swings in the opposite direction and pulls at your neck again. This back and forth whipping motion causes a hyperextension-compression cycle that stresses the structures in your neck.
What Are Some Examples of a Whiplash Injury?
This whipping can cause a variety of injuries to the neck, including:
Strains and Sprains
Hyperextension of the neck can stretch or tear the muscles and tendons in the neck, resulting in neck strain.
Symptoms of neck strain include:
- Neck pain
- Muscle spasms
Hyperextension of the neck can also stretch or tear the ligaments that hold the cervical vertebrae together. This produces a sprained neck.
Symptoms of a sprained neck include:
- Neck and back pain
- Limited range of motion
- Neck instability
- Neck pop at the time of the injury
Strains and sprains can heal on their own without surgery. Doctors will typically prescribe rest, ice packs, and anti-inflammatory drugs.
The neck compresses during the whipping motion characteristic of whiplash. This compression can crush the discs, resulting in disc damage.
The discs include a tough fibrous annulus surrounding a gel-like nucleus. When the disc gets compressed, the annulus can break down.
If the annulus separates, the nucleus can protrude through it. Doctors refer to this protrusion as a herniated disc.
If the annulus remains intact, it can sag and bulge. This injury is called a bulging disc.
A herniated or bulging disc can press on nearby nerves, inflaming them. This inflammation can produce pain and cause the nerves to misfire.
Depending on the nerves affected by the inflammation, you might experience:
- Neck pain
- Pain that radiates into your shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers
- Numbness or tingling
- Muscle weakness
Doctors cannot repair a damaged disc. But they can replace the disc with an artificial one or remove the damaged disc and fuse the adjacent vertebrae.
As the ligaments stretch, they can snap off a piece of a vertebra. When the neck compresses, the force can fracture a vertebra. The fractured vertebra will cause pain and bleeding in the area of the fracture.
But the real risk of a fractured vertebra is paralysis. If a bone fragment dislocates into the spinal canal, it can sever nerves in the spinal cord, leading to permanent paralysis.
Doctors will stabilize your neck to reduce the risk of paralysis. This may require surgery to implant a rod. The bone will heal in about eight weeks. After the fracture heals, you may need physical therapy.
A concussion is not a whiplash injury. But concussions often accompany whiplash injuries because they both result from the same whipping motion.
A concussion happens when the brain swells after sloshing inside the skull. This mild brain injury results from the pressure of the cerebrospinal fluid on the brain as it sloshes.
Concussions can cause a range of physical, cognitive, and emotional symptoms, including:
- Blurry vision
- Emotional outbursts
Concussion symptoms usually clear up in two months without treatment. If your symptoms last longer than two months, you may have post-concussion syndrome.
How Do You Get Compensation for a Whiplash Injury in Florida?
If your whiplash injury resulted from a car accident in Florida, you will probably file a claim with your own personal injury protection (PIP) insurer under Florida’s no-fault insurance system. These benefits get paid regardless of who caused the accident.
If you exhausted your PIP benefits or got injured in something other than a car accident, you may be entitled to pursue compensation from the at-fault party. You must show that your injuries resulted from the other party’s negligent or intentional actions. Contact the Perenich, Caulfield, Avril & Noyes Personal Injury Lawyers for a free consultation to discuss the compensation you can recover for your whiplash injury.