Learn what happens to your body in a rear-end collision. See what it takes to recover from common injuries and who pays your medical bills.
When your vehicle is suddenly hit from behind your entire body will be thrown forward, then slam back against your seat.
Your head and neck may snap forward and back when your body’s motion is quickly stopped by the seat belt, airbag, or steering wheel.
Insurance adjusters may accuse you of faking your injuries if there was no significant vehicle damage. But serious injuries don’t just happen in high-speed collisions.
Scientific studies proved soft-tissue and joint injuries can be caused by collisions as low as 2.5 miles per hour, although most cars don’t sustain damage in crashes less than 8.7 miles per hour. Many rear-end auto accidents occur at speeds below 20 miles per hour.
Here we discuss treatment and recovery times for four significant and common injuries caused by rear-end crashes.
1. Neck Flexion Injuries – Whiplash
Whiplash is a term used to describe soft tissue injuries in the neck and shoulder area that occur when the neck, shoulders, and spine suddenly and violently move, or “snap” well beyond their normal range. Also referred to as hyperextension and hyperflexion, the neck movement is like the motion of a whip as it snaps, giving the condition its name.
As many as 3 million whiplash injuries occur each year in the United States, and 45 percent of people suffering from chronic neck pain blame their condition on a past motor vehicle accident. ¹
Insurance companies are highly suspicious of whiplash injuries because they are diagnosed mainly by the injured person’s complaints. You’ll need good medical documentation from a trustworthy doctor.
Stay away from “car accident” doctors and chiropractors, who will run up your bills with excessive tests and questionable treatments. You could get stuck with those bills. Insurance companies are only required to pay reasonable costs, based on commonly accepted standards of medical care.
Treatment for Whiplash Injuries
Whiplash symptoms might not show up until a day or two after the crash, when you wake up with a throbbing headache or a painful and stiff neck. Your doctor will evaluate how well you can move your neck, the level of your pain, and any other symptoms that might suggest nerve damage or disc involvement.
After a thorough examination, which may include imaging like an X-ray or CT scan, your doctor will prescribe treatment. The goal of treatment is to reduce pain and restore your neck’s range of motion.
Common whiplash treatments:
- Rest may be helpful for a day or two, but extended bedrest can hamper your recovery
- Hot or cold applied to the neck for 15 minutes every few hours can help with pain
- OTC medications can control mild to moderate whiplash pain
- Prescription medications like muscle relaxers and some nerve pain medications may be used short-term to help with pain
- Injections of numbing medicine into tight muscle areas may help manage pain
Most doctors won’t prescribe narcotic pain relievers for soft-tissue types of injuries like whiplash.
Cervical collars are no longer recommended. Instead, at-home exercises may be prescribed to help loosen tight muscles, relieve pain, and restore normal movement to your neck and shoulders. If you need more help to restore motions, your doctor may prescribe physical therapy.
2. Bulging or Herniated Discs
Back injuries from the sudden impact of a rear-end accident can be extremely painful. The force of impact, even at low speeds, can result in compression of your spine and the disks located in the neck and lower back area of the spinal column.
Rear-end accidents are a common cause of herniated or bulging discs.
Bulging discs (also called slipped discs) are protruding out between your spinal bones (vertebra) while herniated discs have ruptured, allowing the gel-filled center to leak out. The displaced discs can press on the spinal cord or nerve roots of either side of the spine, resulting in pain and other symptoms.
As we age, our spinal column naturally begins to show signs of wear. Many adults will show some degree of degenerative disc disease on MRI, even if they’ve never had a back problem.
Because degenerative disc disease is so common, insurance adjusters may say your back injury is a pre-existing condition, not the result of the rear-end collision.
After a vehicle accident, it’s important to tell your medical provider that your back pain and other symptoms did not exist, or are much different than before the rear-end collision. You are entitled to compensation for injuries, even if they are an aggravation of a prior injury.
Cervical Disc Injuries and Treatment
Spinal cord injuries in the cervical spine (the neck area) can occur at the same time as whiplash in a rear-end traffic accident. Bulging or herniated cervical disks can cause numbness, pain, and tingling in the neck, upper back, and down the arms.
Conservative non-surgical treatment for a cervical disc injury is similar to that for whiplash. Rest, non-narcotic pain relievers, exercises, and physical therapy. Most disc injuries resolve in six to eight weeks.
When conservative treatments don’t work, surgical repair may be necessary.
Anterior Cervical Discectomy & Fusion (ACDF) is a surgical procedure going in through the front of the neck to remove the damaged disc and relieve the pressure on nearby nerves. A graft is used to fill in the gap where the disc was removed, effectively fusing the two vertebrae together. Recovery after surgery can take four to six weeks.
Lumbar Disc Injuries and Treatment
A bulging, protruding, or herniated disc in the lumbar spine caused by a rear-end accident may cause immediate pain in the lower back. You may also experience shooting pain, numbness, or tingling down one or both legs.
Less common complications from a lumbar spine injury may include cauda equina syndrome, a medical emergency that presents as a loss of bowel or bladder control.
Treatment for lumbar disc injuries often begins with rest, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen, and physical therapy. Individuals who respond well to conservative treatment generally recover in a few weeks or months.
Spinal decompression surgery may be needed to relieve the pain of damaged discs pressing on the nerve roots. Recovery can take several months, including weeks of physical therapy.
3. Traumatic Brain Injuries – Concussions
Concussion, a form of traumatic brain injury, can happen when a car accident causes a bump, blow or jolt to the head.
In a rear-end collision, the head is jolted violently forward and snapped back again from the force of impact. Often, the victim’s head is slammed against the door or window, and may even strike the steering wheel. Flying objects inside the vehicle, propelled by the force of impact, may hit an occupant in the head.
Older persons should be checked for a traumatic brain injury (TBI) after any type of car crash. Any accident victims who were abruptly jolted, or who banged their head in the crash are also at risk for concussions. Symptoms of a TBI may not develop for hours or days.
Concussion symptoms include dizziness, headache, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, sleep disturbances, and more. In rare cases, a person may develop severe symptoms like uncontrolled vomiting, convulsions, confusion, and other warning signs of a life-threatening blood clot on the brain.
Most mild TBI or concussions can be treated at home with a few days of rest, and a gradual return to non-strenuous activities. When your symptoms are gone, you should be able to return to regular activities.
Concussion symptoms that persist for months may indicate Post-Concussive Syndrome (PCS). Research has shown that mild TBI resulting in persistent post-concussive syndrome has lasting effects on the victim’s ability to think clearly, learn and understand new information, follow directions, and handle emotion.
Treatment of PCS must be customized to each victim, requiring rest and a combination of physical, cognitive, and behavioral therapies. PCS can take months or years to treat, but most victims fully recover.
4. Arm Dislocations and Fractures
Hand and arm injuries can happen to the driver and passengers from being jerked around by the impact or striking the interior of the vehicle. Sometimes hand or arm injuries are caused by the exploding force of the airbag.
If you were gripping the steering wheel on impact, or slammed against the vehicle door, you may suffer a dislocation to your shoulder. The humerus (long upper arm bone) may be forced partially or completely out of the shoulder socket. In many cases, important shoulder muscles, ligaments, and tendons may be damaged as well.
Some dislocations can be manually repositioned by the doctor, then immobilized with a sling and treated with ice, over-the-counter pain medications, and physical therapy for several weeks.
Shoulder dislocations that require surgical repair will take several months to heal and require aggressive pain management. After surgery, the shoulder will be immobilized for four to six weeks, followed by a careful regimen of rehabilitation therapy.
Broken Wrist and Arm Bones
Broken bones can easily happen in a rear-end collision from the force of striking a hand or arm against the vehicle’s interior, or getting bent back by the airbag or steering wheel.
Wrist fractures caused by the force of an automobile accident may involve more than one broken bone. Treatment may be complicated, depending on the age of the accident victim and the severity of the break. Non-surgical treatment requires wearing a cast or splint for four to six weeks, followed by at-home exercises or physical therapy.
Surgical repair of a broken wrist involves placing pins to hold the bones in place. Following surgery, the wrist is immobilized for several weeks, then treated with physical therapy to help restore mobility. Full recovery can take four to six months.
Arm fractures can take up to 12 weeks to heal, depending on whether you need surgical repair to realign the bones. You may not be able to use the arm for lifting or pulling until it’s fully healed.
Paying for Rear-End Car Accident Injuries
Even a minor fender bender can result in severe injuries, and some injuries may not be apparent until hours or days later.
Prompt medical attention after a rear-end collision is critical for a successful injury claim. See your primary care provider, or go to the nearest urgent care or hospital emergency room. Waiting for days before seeing a doctor gives the insurance company a good excuse to challenge your claim.
Severe injury claims should be handled by an experienced personal injury attorney to get the injury compensation you deserve. Most injury attorneys offer a free consultation to car accident victims.
In most states, the at-fault driver’s auto insurance company will pay for your medical treatment as part of your total personal injury compensation.
In a no-fault insurance state, you must first turn to the personal injury protection (PIP) coverage on your own auto policy, or the driver’s policy if you were an injured passenger.
If you are severely injured in a no-fault state, you have the right to seek compensation from the at-fault driver’s policy if the cost of your injuries exceeds your PIP coverage or the state’s no-fault threshold.
You must also rely on your own insurance coverage if the person who ran into the back of your vehicle was an uninsured motorist.
While waiting to finish treatment and settle your auto accident claim, you may use your private health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, or VA benefits to pay for your medical care. After your claim settles, your insurer will seek reimbursement for the money they spent on your behalf, usually by placing a lien against your settlement proceeds.
You or your car accident attorney can negotiate the medical liens against your settlement, enabling you to pocket more of your settlement money.
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