How to diagnose and treat common neck injuries from a car accident

How to diagnose and treat common neck injuries from a car accident

Car accidents are the leading cause of neck injuries in the U.S. Each year, an estimated 800,000 collisions result in neck injuries are reported with an annual cost of more than $5.2 billion. In many cases, neck injuries following a car accident are left untreated or do not receive appropriate treatment, resulting in chronic pain and suffering and potential disabilities. By getting a prompt physical evaluation and proper diagnosis of neck injuries following a motor vehicle collision, you can increase your chances of fully recovering and reduce the risk of exacerbating your injuries.

What happens to your neck during a car accident?

Your neck is a vulnerable area of your body. However, it is not protected well during a car accident. Your seatbelt helps to hold your body in place during a collision, but your neck and head are unrestrained during a car crash. When an accident happens, your head and neck can be thrown back and forth or from side to side, or it can be hit by debris. This type of sudden, violent movement can seriously injure the tendons, muscles, ligaments, bones, nerves, and joints of your cervical spine and surrounding tissues.

Many people anticipate collisions right before they occur and tense up their neck muscles. When this happens, your neck muscles do not have the capacity to stretch as much as they do when they are relaxed, which can lead to increased muscular strain upon impact.

What are the signs and symptoms of a neck injury?

While some car accident injuries are immediately obvious, you may not experience the symptoms of a neck injury for several hours up to several days after your collision occurs. This makes it important for you to see your doctor immediately after an accident even when you are unsure if you have been injured. Some of the signs and symptoms of a neck injury include the following:

  • Stiffness
  • Neck pain
  • Headaches
  • Reduced mobility
  • Pain radiating through the shoulders, arms, and hands
  • Weakness, numbness, or tingling in your arms, fingers, and hands
  • Dizziness
  • Temporary or permanent paralysis

You should never ignore neck pain after a car accident even if you think it is minor. If you leave a neck injury untreated, it can quickly worsen and cause long-term complications and chronic pain.

Common types of neck injuries in car accidents

A variety of different neck injuries can be caused by car accidents. The most common types are described below.

Whiplash injuries

A whiplash injury commonly occurs in rear-end collisions, but it can also happen in any type of car accident when the person’s head and neck are violently tossed about because of the force of the collision. This type of injury happens when the neck and head are thrown forward suddenly and then backward, causing muscle strains, tears, and damage to the connective tissues, nerves, muscles, and ligaments in the neck. When you suffer a whiplash injury, you might not experience symptoms until hours or days later. When you get early treatment, your injury has a better chance of resolving within a few weeks. However, if the injury is not promptly diagnosed and treated, you could experience long-term problems, including severe headaches, chronic pain, and other issues that can last for months or years.

Damage to the soft tissues

When you are in a car accident, the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in your neck can be strained, sprained, or torn. Damage to the soft tissues of the neck can cause muscular stiffness in your shoulders and neck, tenderness, and pain. Muscle strains can also result in reduced mobility of your neck and muscle spasms.

Herniated or slipped discs

If you are involved in a high-impact crash, the discs located in the cervical spine region in your neck can be forced out of place from between your cervical vertebrae. When this occurs, the disc can compress the nerves radiating out from your spinal cord. This can cause weakness, pain, numbness, and tingling in your neck, arms, shoulders, fingers, and hands.

Facet joint injuries

In your cervical spine, there are facet joints that help to stabilize your head and neck and provide greater mobility. The impact of a car accident can cause inflammation to occur in your facet joints and can also damage the surrounding ligaments, potentially affecting your range of motion and the movement of your joints.

Cervical fractures

Fractures to the vertebrae of your cervical spine are serious injuries that can cause severe pain. If your spinal cord is injured by the fractured vertebrae, you could also suffer temporary or permanent paralysis. This type of injury will require prompt immobilization and treatment to prevent your condition from worsening. If you suspect that your neck might be fractured after an accident, do not move without the help of emergency medical personnel. Moving improperly could cause injury to your spinal cord and temporary or permanent paralysis.


Another common neck injury in a car accident is a laceration. When glass, objects, and debris fly about your car and strike your neck, you can suffer lacerations, abrasions, and bruises. If the lacerations are deep, they could also damage the tendons and ligaments of your neck.

Long-term complications of neck injuries

If a neck injury is not treated after a car accident, you can suffer chronic issues that can last for months or years. For example, whiplash is frequently discounted or misdiagnosed, resulting in long-term related disorders for months. These long-term problems can include chronic back and neck pain, cognitive issues, frequent headaches, limited mobility, and mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression.

How neck injuries are diagnosed after car accidents

When you go to the hospital or your doctor’s office after an accident, your doctor will start by asking you questions about what happened and the symptoms you are experiencing. Your doctor will also likely ask you questions to help him or her to understand the severity of your symptoms and their frequency. You should be prepared to discuss how your neck injury affects your ability to perform everyday tasks.

After your doctor questions you, he or she will then perform a physical examination. During this exam, your doctor will need to move and touch your arms, neck, and head. You will be asked to perform simple movements so the doctor can check your range of motion in your shoulders and neck, what degree of movement causes increased pain, the location of tender areas in your back, shoulders, or neck, the sensation in your limbs, and your strength and reflexes.

While whiplash injuries cannot be seen on imaging tests, your doctor will likely order an imaging test to check for other types of injuries, including cervical fractures or disc herniations. These tests might include x-rays to check for dislocations and fractures, computerized tomography to take cross-sectional pictures of your bone to check for bone damage, and magnetic resonance imaging to produce three-dimensional images. MRIs can also reveal damage to your soft tissues, including to your discs, ligaments, and spinal cord.

Treatments for neck injuries

The treatments you might receive will depend on the type of neck injury you have suffered and its severity. Some of the types of treatment that you might receive include the following:

Physical therapy

Cervical collar

Facet or epidural steroid injections


Spinal fusion surgery

Corticosteroids to reduce inflammation around the spinal cord

Pain medications

Rehabilitation for severe injuries

If it is not promptly diagnosed and treated, any type of neck injury can cause long-term complications and chronic symptoms. When you suffer from chronic neck and back pain, you could have trouble concentrating, sleeping, performing vigorous activities, and enjoying the activities you used to participate in. This can be isolating and cause you to suffer from anxiety, depression, and anger.

Recovering after an automobile accident

Each person’s road to recovery will be unique. The type and severity of your neck injury will have a large impact on the course of therapy your doctor prescribes. Some symptoms will resolve quickly while others can cause chronic problems. Receiving early medical help can improve your chances of making a full recovery. 

John Norwood
John Norwood is best known as a technology journalist, currently at Ziddu where he focuses on tech startups, companies, and products.