Whiplash – perhaps the best-known injury associated with car accidents – is also one of the most misunderstood. Many people assume only high-speed crashes cause whiplash. In reality, numerous drivers and passengers sustain whiplash in low-speed rear-end collisions. Many people also believe whiplash is a minor problem because it affects soft tissues and its symptoms are invisible to outside observers. Again, this is untrue. Whiplash can injure the vertebrae, the disks between the bones, the ligaments, muscles and nerves. It can cause severe pain and other symptoms that last months or even years.
Unfortunately, insurance companies and juries can also hold these misconceptions. That can make it difficult to file a successful claim for whiplash injuries following an accident.
Let’s look at the facts about whiplash and what you need to know to make a claim.
Causes of whiplash
Whiplash is most commonly caused when a rear-end collision propels the body forward faster than the head, and then the body is abruptly stopped by the seatbelt. The forceful back-and-forth jerking of the neck can shear the soft tissues and damage delicate bones.
Symptoms of whiplash
Symptoms usually develop within a few days of the accident and may include:
• Neck pain and stiffness
• An increase in pain when you move your neck
• Loss of range of motion in the neck
• Headaches, frequently starting at the base of the skull
• Tenderness or pain in the shoulder, upper back or arms
• Tingling or numbness in the arms and/or hand
Occasionally, people may also experience:
• Blurred vision
• Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
• Difficulty sleeping
• Difficulty concentrating
• Memory problems
Often, people with whiplash don’t feel the symptoms immediately because the body floods the bloodstream with adrenaline and cortisol during the accident. These hormones temporarily mask the sensation of pain.
That’s why it’s essential to seek medical care following an accident, even if you don’t immediately feel pain or other symptoms. First, treatment of your injuries will be far more successful if you seek an early diagnosis. Second, it will be far easier for you to make a successful legal claim for your whiplash if a doctor immediately diagnoses and documents your injuries.
Because whiplash causes injuries to the soft tissues such as muscles and ligaments, doctors cannot diagnose it through X-ray alone. They typically also order CT (computerized tomography) or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans.
Your doctor will also ask you to perform basic movements to determine your range of motion, intensity of pain and tenderness, degree of of sensation, and quickness of reflexes.
A doctor will typically recommend getting rest, applying ice or a heating pad to the neck, and taking over-the-counter pain medications. In more severe cases, the physician may prescribe prescription painkillers, muscle-relaxing drugs, and/or injection of lidocaine.
Doctors usually also advise performing gentle stretches and exercises to increase the range of motion in the neck. If pain persists, they may recommend physical therapy to strengthen the muscles and restore movement.
While the image of a whiplash patient wearing a soft foam cervical collar is so common it’s cliche, in reality it’s not as common as it used to be. Studies have shown that keeping the neck immobile for long periods of time can reduce muscle strength and hinder recovery. So doctors prescribe wearing these collars less often and for less time than they did in years past.
The cost of treatment – including the initial visit to the hospital, subsequent doctor visits, physical therapy and prescription drugs – can add up. Because insurance companies can look suspiciously upon whiplash, they may refuse to pay your expenses. In that case, it may be necessary to file a claim.
Filing a claim for whiplash injuries
If you have been in an auto collision caused by someone else, and a doctor has diagnosed you with whiplash due to the accident, it’s crucial to file a claim as soon as possible. You may be entitled to compensation for your medical expenses, pain and suffering, lost wages, and more.
If the accident was partially your fault and partially the other driver’s fault, you still may be entitled to a percentage of the damages, depending on which state you’re filing the claim in. Review our article on what to do if you are partially liable for the accident.
Also consult our article about what to do following an accident, including taking photos, making a police report, documenting the incident and speaking to witnesses. In addition, be sure to document all your medical expenses associated with the accident, plus other costs such as lost wages, medication, and mileage driven.
An experienced personal injury attorney can advise you about what damages you may be entitled to and how to maximize your compensation. The Lamber-Goodnow Personal Injury team offers free consultations for people who have been injured in auto accidents. We don’t get paid until you get paid.