Rear End-Collision Injuries and How You Can RecoverBy Stewart J. Guss on September 25th, 2019
You’re sitting at a stoplight, minding your own business, thinking about your day, when—BAM!—some idiot slams the front end of his car into the rear-end of yours. Your head jerks back, then forward. You feel a sharp pain in your neck. Your day goes from normal to disastrous faster than you can say “tailgating.”
Sound familiar? It does for many people. Rear-end collisions happen everywhere, every day. They’re among the most common types of traffic accidents in the country. And even at slow speeds, they can cause serious, lasting injuries.
A Brief Physics Lesson
Let’s talk about the physics of a car crash for a second.To understand why rear-end collisions cause so much pain and discomfort, it helps to have an image your mind about what exactly happens to two cars when the front of one runs into the back of the other.
Here are the basics. Imagine there are two cars: the leading car and the trailing car. The trailing car is traveling faster than the leading car (or the leading car may be at rest). For simplicity, imagine that upon impact, the two cars become entangled together. That entangled “double vehicle” continues moving forward for a distance that depends on how fast the two cars were traveling at the moment of impact. As a general matter, however, the speed at which the post-accident-tangled-mess of two vehicles travels will be slower than the speed the trailing car was traveling when they collided, and it will be faster than the pre-accident speed of the leading car. Here’s a video explanation, complete with equations.
In other words, in a rear-end collision, the leading vehicle experiences a momentary (and usually, for its occupants, unexpected) acceleration, while the trailing vehicle experiences a deceleration. Injuries can happen to occupants of both vehicles, but the risks of certain types of injuries are far higher for those in the lead vehicle. That’s because while all cars have standard safety features protecting against a sudden deceleration, safety features are far less prevalent or effective in the case of sudden acceleration.
Whiplash, the Most Common Rear-End Collision Injury
That’s right, whiplash. You’ve heard of it, but do you really know what it means? Lucky for you, we’ve got your explanation right here.
So, imagine you are a passenger in the lead car from the previous hypothetical. Your car is stopped. Suddenly and without warning, another car plows into yours from behind. Your car shoots forward, which means you shoot forward, as well. But not all of your body shoots forward at the same time.
If you’ve t never stopped to consider what happens to your body at that moment of sudden acceleration from a rear-end collision, rest easy. The scientists who wrote this research paper have. And what they found is that the impact and sudden acceleration initially shifts your torso forward relative to your head and neck. This momentarily creates an “S” shaped curvature in your spine; the discs in your middle back get compressed while those up toward your neck have not yet flexed. As your torso shifts horizontally below the center of mass of your head and neck, a so-called “shearing” force transmits up your spine, one disc at a time, until your cervical spine takes a “C” shape with your head thrown backward. There’s a handy video of the spinal “whipping” action here if the still pictures in the research paper don’t do anything for you.
All of this happens in the blink of an eye, of course. And it’s an incredibly unnatural motion for a person’s spine. Usually, your head moves while your torso stays relatively still. Here, the opposite happens—your torso gets pushed out ahead of your still-momentarily-stationary head. The forceful deformation of the spine from an “S” to a “C” shape as this occurs and each individual disc absorbs and transmits force upward along the spinal column, followed by an inverse motion as the head and torso rebound, is what principally contributes the injury known as whiplash. The “whip,” so to speak, is the spinal column, which deforms and transmits all of that energy into a sudden, violent movement of the person’s head.
What happens when the spine acts like a whip with your head as its tip? OUCH! is what happens. Soft tissue—muscles and ligaments—in the neck get strained far beyond their normal range of motion. Like any type of strain, these are painful injuries without any complications. But they can also cause secondary symptoms, like headaches and skeletomuscular discomfort. And as anyone who has suffered through chronic pain can tell you, that sort of long-lasting discomfort can make your life miserable.
Spinal Injuries, Another Rear-End Collision Danger
All of that force that harms the soft tissue in your head and neck can also cause structural damage in your spinal column. Victims of rear-end collisions often find themselves contending with ruptured discs, injured vertebrae, and in serious cases, damage to the spinal cord.
Spinal injuries are serious business. A back injury—meaning an injury to a disc or vertebra—can take months to rehabilitate and may require surgery. People often have to wear braces to get around, and can’t spend any significant amount of time on their feet. This often makes it difficult to work and is what has led far-too-many Americans to turn to powerful, habit-forming painkillers to dull the pain. So even if the person’s back eventually heals, a destructive addiction to opioids may take its place.
A spinal cord injury can make life even worse. The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves running through the spinal column that transmits messages from the brain to the body. When the spinal cord sustains damage, those signals get interfered-with or cut-off altogether. This frequently results in temporary or permanent paralysis or loss of feeling to the parts of the body below the site of the injury. Living with a spinal cord injury usually costs millions of dollars over a person’s lifetime; a lifetime which, because of the injury, may well end up significantly shortened because of secondary health complications.
With all of that “whipping” around, here’s another part of a person’s body that can sustain severe damage in a rear-end collision: the brain. Just as the head and neck move somewhat independently of the torso, the brain moves somewhat independently of the skull. When a person’s head sustains an impact or a sudden jolt (like nearly-instant, forceful snapping of the head in a “whiplash” scenario), the brain itself can sustain tissue damage from moving unnaturally within the cranium. Minor bruising or swelling may result in a concussion, which can cause temporary cognitive, motor, and emotional dysfunction, but usually heals in time. More severe damage may cause a traumatic brain injury, which can leave an injured individual permanently impaired.
One of the many dangers of brain trauma is that it’s not always immediately apparent. That fog you may feel after a car accident might be a sign of a serious brain injury. Just as severe whiplash can occur in even low-speed rear-end collisions, so can traumatic brain injury. This is why you should NEVER WAIT to seek medical attention after a rear-end collision, and you should also ATTEND ALL OF YOUR FOLLOW-UP APPOINTMENTS to make sure that new symptoms have not developed that may require medical attention.
Burns, Lacerations, Complex Fractures, and Other Severe Injuries
The three injuries above represent the most common types of injuries suffered by the occupants of the lead car in a rear-end collision scenario. But those two injuries are hardly the only ones that can result from a rear-end crash, and the occupants of the lead car aren’t the only people who may suffer them.
In any collision, there is always the risk of a panoply of catastrophic injuries to occupants of both cars. An impact can start a fire or cause an explosion, which may result in severe, life-threatening burns and scarring. In all but the most minor accidents, glass shatters and metal twists, creating sharp edges that can inflict deep cuts (“lacerations”) that can cause massive blood loss or leave a person with long-lasting muscle and nerve damage. Sudden accelerations and decelerations, and the crumpling of car bodies, can pin, pinch, or compress limbs, shattering the bones in the arms and legs of passengers of both cars. The list goes on-and-on. The worst scenarios involve fatalities.
Secondary Accident Injuries
Another thing about rear-end collisions is that they sometimes start a chain reaction of tragedy. Consider the following scenario. Car A rear ends Car B. Car B gets pushed into an intersection, colliding with Car C and Pedestrian D. Truck E slams into Car A, pushing the whole crumpled mass of Cars A, B, and C over an embankment. And so-on.
Or maybe it’s the other way around. Think of your typical pile-up accident on the interstate. It usually starts with some kind of incident or unexpected road condition that brings traffic to a halt. Drivers not expecting to encounter a sudden traffic jam run into each other again and again and again.
Whatever the scenario, the injuries and fatalities resulting from so-called “secondary” accidents can end up causing injuries far more serious and life-destroying than the injuries sustained in the initial rear-end collision. Of course, that’s not always the case. As we’ve described above, rear-end collisions themselves can leave people fighting for their lives. The point is, even a “minor” rear-end collision can inflict widespread damage.
What to Do About a Rear-End Collision Injury
First of all, get your injury checked out by a medical professional NOW. You should go directly to a doctor if you’ve been involved in a car accident, even if you don’t feel injured.
We’re serious. Even if you were in a minor fender-bender, nothing more than a love-tap, seek medical attention. Some of the injuries above may show symptoms immediately, but many (like whiplash and brain trauma) do not. DO NOT RISK YOUR HEALTH by trying to power through an ache or pain that could be a warning sign of a far more serious injury.
Next, talk to an experienced car accident injury attorney about your right to seek compensation for your injuries. Sometimes, in our experience, people may feel hesitant to seek legal advice for rear-end accident injuries. Some individuals have a picture in their minds of a plaintiff wearing a foam collar trying to squeeze a few bucks out of a defendant (or an insurance company). Try not to feel that way.
To begin with, no ethical lawyer would ever try to exaggerate an injury or make a false claim to an insurer, a judge, or anyone else. Also, you should not assume that just because an accident did not cause major damage to your car, or did not inflict a life-threatening injury, that your legal rights are any less important or your claim to compensation is any less valid than in those other situations. You don’t deserve the pain and difficulty that someone else’s negligent driving caused in your life.
In most rear-end collisions, the driver of the trailing car bears most of the blame. While that’s not always the case, it usually is. Assuming that driver carries insurance and/or can compensate you for your injury, then that’s what should happen. An experienced rear-end collision lawyer can help evaluate the extent of your injury, what it has already cost you and will likely cost you going forward, and how to enforce your right to payment for your out-of-pocket costs and your physical and emotional suffering.
So, to sum up, here’s what we’ve learned. Rear-end collisions, even at low speeds, can cause serious injuries. The occupants of the leading car face particular risks of whiplash, back injuries, spinal cord damage, and brain injury, because of the powerful and unnatural forces exerted on their bodies when their car accelerates without warning. Any injury sustained in a car accident NEEDS IMMEDIATE MEDICAL ATTENTION. And, finally, contacting an experienced rear-end collision accident lawyer can help you recover compensation for the full cost of your injuries, no matter how severe your injuries or complicated the circumstances of your accident.