Based on statistics from the United States Census Bureau, an average of 6 million auto accidents occur in the U.S. each year. Of these, nearly 3 million will suffer some type of injury. There are many reasons why these accidents occur, but the focus of this is on the type of injuries and symptoms that commonly occur as a result of a motor vehicle accident.
Even though there may be no obvious physical signs of injury, head and brain injuries occur and are one of the leading causes of mortality. There are two main categories of injury to the brain that can occur. A direct trauma to the head can cause a contusion, cerebral hemorrhage, and/or lacerations to the brain. Injuries can also occur from indirect forces resulting from rapid acceleration or deceleration. In this scenario, the brain becomes damaged as a result of shear forces that cause the brain to move back and forth violently within the skull.
Over 35% of acute spinal cord injuries that occur each year are the result of a motor vehicle related accident (Mayo Clinic). These are serious and often life threatening injuries that can occur from direct impacts, rollovers, and from failing to wear a seatbelt (or from seatbelt defects). Based on the specific location of injury within the spinal cord, partial or total loss of function and sensation can occur. This can have a devastating effect on multiple organ systems including inability to control the bowels and bladder.
Whiplash is perhaps the most common injury seen following a motor vehicle and occur even at low speeds. Just as the definition of whiplash implies, something is jerked or jolted resulting in injury. In this case, the neck is either hyperextended or hyper flexed causing a sprain/strain injury to the cervical and/or upper thoracic spine. Common symptoms include post-traumatic pain, stiffness, and loss of range of motion, spasms, headaches, and dizziness. In some cases, referred pain to the arm(s), including tingling and numbness may also occur. Depression and cognitive disorders may also result from whiplash.
Back pain is also most commonly associated injuries following a motor vehicle accident. High energy forces and sudden movements can lead to soft tissue sprains and strains of the mid and low back. Compression fractures can occur from a head on crash in which the spine is distracted while the pelvis is stabilized by the seat belt. Fractures can also occur in older patients who have lesser bone density from osteoporosis. Disc herniations causing pain, tingling and numbness are also common occurrences following a motor vehicle accident. Not all symptoms will appear immediately following impact. Some will take days or weeks to appear.
Extremity injuries of the arms and legs can occur either as isolated injuries or in conjunction with other aforementioned injury types. These include forearm and wrist fractures, fractures to the femur, patella, and ankle. Cartilage tears, joint sprains/strains, and dislocations may also result.