Neck pain is one of the most common issues caused by car accidents, with some people experiencing pain for just a few hours, and others suffering from ongoing pain for the rest of their lives.
The duration of neck pain after a car accident depends on the type of injury you sustain. Seek prompt medical attention after the accident to streamline your recovery process.
What happens to your neck during an auto accident?
If you are involved in a car accident, you may find your neck jerks suddenly forward and then backward. The seat belt will restrain your body, but this means your neck absorbs most of the force. Some collisions trigger forceful side-to-side neck movements. You could also find yourself being hit by debris, from either inside or outside the vehicle.
When you see an accident is about to happen, you might involuntarily tense your muscles, raising the risk of muscle strain.
The medical and legal descriptor for the neck is the cervical spine. This area consists of the vertebrae – seven small bones with shock-absorbing discs between each bone. These structures act as protection for your spinal cord. The spinal cord is a nerve network connecting the rest of the body to the brain.
The impact caused by a collision can be too much for your intervertebral discs and vertebrae to bear, resulting in injuries to one of more of these cervical structures. The trauma of an auto accident can damage soft tissues in your neck. These soft tissues include:
- Connective tissues
- Facet joints
Neck injuries: signs and symptoms
Your neck consists of dozens of different structures. If you feel any neck pain after a car wreck, it is vital to monitor your symptoms. It is also important to see a medical professional as soon as practical.
Some of the most common signs and symptoms of neck injuries include:
- Sore neck
- Stiff neck
- Shoulder pain
- Lumbar pain (lower back pain)
- Thoracic pain (middle back pain)
- Pain at the back of the head
- Pain when moving neck
- Severe pain with any sudden movement
You may experience neck pain immediately after a car accident, or it could take a day or more after the crash for symptoms to present. Sometimes, it takes 48 hours or more before all the symptoms develop. This is classified as delayed pain.
Common delayed symptoms following an auto accident include:
- Ringing in the ears
- Stomach discomfort
- Limited range of motion
- Inability to move neck
- Muscle pain
- Muscle spasms
- Tight muscles
- Chest pain
Common neck injuries
These are the most reported neck injuries after a car crash:
- Soft tissue damage
- Slipped or herniated disc
- Facet joint injury
- Neck fracture
- Cuts and lacerations
Whiplash occurs when the neck and head are thrust forward and backward forcefully during the impact of a vehicle collision. This forceful impact can cause ligament damage, muscle strain, and fractures (both in the bones and the spinal facet joints).
Headaches and dizziness are the most common symptoms of whiplash. These symptoms can take 24 hours to manifest. Stomach pain is a lesser-known but commonplace symptom of whiplash.
Left untreated, whiplash can trigger long-lasting damage, so seek a prompt medical assessment after the accident.
Soft tissue damage
Neck sprain and neck strains present similar symptoms, but they are not the same thing.
Neck sprains involve torn ligaments. Ligaments are the soft tissue connecting bones to bones. Sprains often result in pain when moving your head or neck, reduced overall mobility, and muscle spasms.
Neck strains, by contrast, involve damage to the tendons (soft tissue connecting bone to muscle), the facet joint, or the muscles.
Slipped or herniated disc
The bones of your spine are cushioned with intervertebral discs. The impact caused by a car accident can cause damage to either of these structures.
The force of this impact can damage the bone itself.
One of the other common injuries caused by car accidents is a herniated disc. This occurs when the cushioning between bones is punctured. The resultant symptoms include tingling pain, burning, and throbbing in the affected area.
Facet joint injury
Facet joints connect your neck bones, and they also protect nerves. These joints can be destabilized by blunt force trauma, resulting in facet joint injuries. Symptoms can include stiffness, tingling, and inflammation.
Neck fractures occur if one of the neck bones breaks or partially breaks.
With severe neck fractures, small bone fragments can lodge into delicate surrounding tissues.
The pain of a neck fracture is typically instant, and the immediate result is limited neck movement.
Cuts and lacerations
Debris from car accidents can strike your neck area. Any superficial cuts will likely only cause bleeding and bruising. Lacerations are deeper cuts requiring stitches. Left untreated, lacerations can cause ligament and tendon damage.
How long will neck pain last after a car accident injury?
The pain experienced after a car accident could last for weeks, months, or even years. The duration of pain will depend entirely on the scope and severity of the injuries you sustain.
If you are lucky enough to escape with minor bumps and bruises, you could be in pain for a few days. More serious injuries, on the other hand, could lead to hospitalization and potentially lengthy, painful recovery times.
Here is a snapshot of some of the most common neck-related injuries reported in car accidents with a guideline to how long pain is likely to persist.
- Whiplash: Whiplash injuries commonly occur after rear-end accidents. Most people suffering whiplash will heal fully after a few weeks. In some cases, though, chronic neck and head pain can linger for months or even years after the wreck.
- Spinal cord injuries: Spinal cord issues caused by car accidents are among the most traumatic and painful of injuries. Any damage to the spinal cord or its nerves can trigger permanent impairments to strength, sensation, and bodily functions. You could take up to six months to recover from a spinal cord injury. In the event of surgery, recovery can take up to four months.
- TBIs (traumatic brain injuries: TBIs typically result from violent blows to the head or the body. During a car crash, drivers and passengers can hit their heads on the steering wheel, window, or windshield. This type of brain injury causes both physical and psychological symptoms. Sometimes, symptoms present immediately, but it can take days or even weeks after the accident for symptoms to manifest. You should fully recover from a minor concussion in two or three weeks. More severe brain injuries involve much longer recovery times.