3 Common Head-On Collision Injuries: Causes and Treatments

The most common injuries from a head-on collision are also the most catastrophic. Learn about causes, treatments, and how to pay for it all.

Head-on crashes are the most serious of all car accidents. Statistically, less than half of vehicle occupants in a head-on collision will survive the crash.¹ Most victims suffer from multiple lacerations, bruises, burns, and broken bones.

Even at slow speeds, frontal crashes can cause catastrophic injuries. Injuries to internal organs in the chest and belly, head and face, and the neck and spinal cord are common to frontal collisions.²

Here we discuss three of the most serious injuries arising from head-on collisions, how they occur, what happens to your body in a front-end crash, and how to pay for treatment.

Common Head-On Collision Injuries:

  1. Trauma to the Chest and Abdomen
  2. Injuries to the Head and Face
  3. Neck and Spinal Cord Injuries

Other Key Information:

1. Trauma to the Chest and Abdomen

Chest Injuries: Severe trauma to the torso in a head-on accident can cause life-threatening internal injuries to the lungs, heart, and major blood vessels.

Pneumothorax, better known as a collapsed lung, can be caused by broken ribs puncturing one or both lungs during the crash.

The aorta is the main vessel carrying freshly oxygenated blood from the heart out into the body. Accident victims often don’t survive a torn aorta.

Abdominal Injuries: Serious injuries to the spleen, liver, kidneys, and digestive organs are common in frontal crashes. These injuries are usually caused by improperly fitted seatbelts and other blunt force trauma.

Most internal injuries require emergency surgery to stem bleeding and medications to treat and prevent infections. Damage to the stomach or intestines may release toxins into the abdominal cavity that further complicate recovery.

2. Injuries to the Head and Face

Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI): Car accidents are one of the leading causes of traumatic brain injuries. When the head is violently impacted in a crash, the brain literally bounces around inside the skull, causing bruising, bleeding, and sometimes tearing of the brain tissue.

When the skull is fractured in a crash, bone fragments may penetrate the brain, causing further tissue trauma. Closed head injuries and skull fractures resulting in traumatic brain injuries can range from relatively mild concussions to coma and death.

Obese passengers are at the highest risk of severe head injuries in a frontal collision, although the mechanism of injury is not well understood.

Head-on auto accidents can cause severe, possibly irreversible brain damage. The victim may require emergency surgery to reduce pressure on the brain. A probe may be inserted to measure brain pressure and oxygen levels, and the person may be put on a ventilator. A feeding tube may be inserted while the victim is kept under heavy sedation.

When the injured person begins to wake up, they may have no memory of the crash. Depending on the affected areas of the brain, the victim may have problems with memory, speech, decision-making, and other cognitive skills.

Treating serious brain trauma can be a long and slow process involving physical, occupational, and emotional therapy. Some TBI victims are able to get back to their pre-injury brain status, while some may need a lifetime of care.

Facial Injuries: Crash victims may also suffer severe cuts and bruising to the head and face, as well as a broken jaw, cheek, nose, or orbital eye bones. Some types of injuries are caused by airbag deployment, others by blunt force and flying debris.

3. Neck and Spinal Cord Injuries

Whiplash: Neck and shoulder whiplash injuries happen because the violent movement of the head after impact can over-extend delicate muscles, nerves, and tendons. Symptoms include stiffness, pain, headaches, and sometimes dizziness and fatigue. Recovery may take weeks or months, depending on the severity of the injury.

Conservative treatment for whiplash includes rest, use of over-the-counter pain medications, and sometimes muscle relaxers. Gentle exercise to improve movement is helpful after the first few days of rest.

Spinal Cord Injuries: Violent front-end collisions can damage or sever a victim’s spinal cord, resulting in paralysis or death. The extent of the paralysis depends on the location of the injury along the spinal cord.

There are four spinal cord levels. The higher the level of injury, the more bodily functions will be affected.

Four levels of the spinal cord, from top to bottom:

  1. Cervical: The cervical spine begins at the base of the brain and down the neck. Cord injuries at this level may result in the loss of use of all four limbs, called quadriplegia or tetraplegia. Almost every bodily function may be affected.
  2. Thoracic: The thoracic cord level is below the cervical level, along the shoulders and mid-back. Cord damage at this level may mean the victim has some use of their arms and hands, although they may have trouble breathing or coughing.
  3. Lumbar: The nerves in the this lower back area of the spine affect the pelvis and legs. If the victim retains some leg movement, they may still have trouble walking or balancing.
  4. Sacral: The sacral spine area is commonly known as the “tailbone.” Damage to the sacral spinal cord affects the ankles, feet, and the back of the knees, needed to bend the knees properly. Back injuries at the sacral level also impact the bowels, bladder, and sexual function.

Treatment for spinal injuries involves emergency care aimed at preserving as much function as possible. Surgery may be used to stabilize the vertebrae and reduce pressure on the spinal cord. The victim may need to be catheterized to empty the bladder and placed on a ventilator to aid breathing.

There is no way to repair a damaged spinal cord. Long-term care involves rehabilitation to help the victim adjust to their limitations. Profoundly injured car accident victims may require round-the-clock care for the rest of their lives.

Your Body in a Head-On Collision

Modern cars are designed with crumple zones to dissipate crash force before it reaches the passenger compartment. In a head-on collision, the front end of the vehicle will take a lot of force, but not enough to spare the driver and passengers from trauma.

Despite great advances in motor vehicle safety, our bodies cannot withstand the impact of a high-speed front-end collision. In many instances, a second crash occurs when the struck vehicle is knocked into other vehicles or stationary objects like Jersey barriers or trees.

In a frontal crash, what happens to your body begins with being thrown forward while being held in place by lap and shoulder belts. The abrupt high-speed impact can fracture collar bones, shoulders, and ribs as you’re thrown against the safety restraints.

Improperly fitted belts that rest across the abdomen rather than the pelvis can cause critical internal organ damage to the spleen, stomach, and intestines. Exploding airbags can cause scrapes, burns, and fractures to the nose, cheek, and orbital bones.

Even with safety features, the head and neck can snap back and forth with enough force to cause brain damage and cervical spine injuries.

Internal injuries to the heart and lungs are secondary to broken ribs and blunt force trauma, as the body is slammed against the safety belt, steering wheel, seat, car door, and more.

Intrusion, meaning twisted metal and car parts forced into the passenger compartment, cause massive fractures, cuts, burns, and penetrating trauma to the body and limbs.

While safety belts and airbags can contribute to some kinds of motor vehicle crash injuries, they do save lives by keeping you in your seat. Wear your seatbelt, and make sure children are properly restrained in your vehicle. In every type of car crash, you stand a much greater chance of surviving if you’re not ejected from the vehicle.

Paying Medical Bills After a Frontal Crash

Immediately after a head-on collision, you or your loved one will be rushed to the nearest trauma center by ambulance or helicopter. Emergency surgery may be necessary. Some injuries, like broken bones, may be left for treatment later as the trauma team works to stabilize life-threatening injuries.

After days or weeks, the trauma victim will likely need to transfer to a specialized rehab program. This is when paying for ongoing medical expenses will become a concern.

Eventually, compensation from the at-fault party will cover the cost of some or all of your medical bills. But high-dollar injury claims are complicated and take time.

Until your injury claim is settled, you have some options:

  • Your Auto Insurance Company – Your own policy (or the driver of the car you were in) may have MedPay or Personal Injury Protection (PIP) coverage that will pay medical bills up to the limit without waiting. MedPay and PIP limits typically range from $5,000 to $10,000.
  • Health Insurance – You can use your private health insurance, Medicare, or VA medical benefits. If the patient is currently uninsured, or loses their job and employer-provided healthcare because of their injuries, they should be eligible for reduced-cost healthcare through the government-sponsored health insurance marketplace.
  • Workers’ Compensation – Crash victims who were on the job when the accident occurred may qualify for medical and wage benefits under their employer’s workers’ compensation insurance, no matter who caused the collision.
  • Medicaid – Patients, especially disabled persons, under certain income limits are eligible for their state’s Medicaid and CHIPS programs. Contact your state’s Medicaid office for help with the application process, or apply online through the health insurance marketplace.
  • Waivers and Payment Plans – Speak with the financial aid department at the hospital for help with immediate medical bills. Many hospitals will waive all or part of medical bills that would normally be the patient’s responsibility. You may be offered a payment plan to help stretch out the remaining cost.
  • Promise to Pay – Your personal injury attorney may offer a letter of protection to doctors and medical facilities who provide your care. The letter promises to pay the medical costs after your settlement if the provider will care for you without sending your unpaid bills to collections.

Severe head-on injury claims should always be handled by an experienced car accident attorney.

Your personal injury lawyer can not only maximize your potential injury compensation, they can also negotiate with medical lien holders so you can keep more of your settlement.

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>