Injuries from motor vehicle accidents are common in emergency rooms around the world. The many scenarios that can occur during an accident set the stage for a variety of forces and damage to the vulnerable areas in the head and neck.
Brain Injury and Head Trauma
One of the most common injuries involves bleeding around the brain, which can be classified as either extradural or subdural hematomas.
Extradural hematomas result from a tearing of the fragile veins and arteries resting on top of the brain's tough membrane, the dura mater, and between the skull; this bleeding collects quickly and pushes against the brain. Symptoms from brain and nerve compression include headache, dizziness, nausea, change in mental function (for instance with coordination, speech or alertness) and may lead to more serious developments such as breathing difficulty, seizures and death.
Subdural hematomas occur when blood collects beneath the dura mater, and surrounds and compresses the brain more slowly. This type of hematoma can be harder to detect, because the symptoms (which are similar to those found in extradural hematomas) occur gradually. If not diagnosed in time, the delicate blood vessels directly supplying the brain may erode, and brain compression leading to neurological damage may become permanent.
The brain may also be abscessed directly in a car accident, if the skull is fractured and a bone lacerates the brain tissue. Other areas commonly affected in skull fractures include the eyes, ears, face and the nerves and blood vessels supplying them. For instance, clear fluid leaking from the nose and/or ears is a sign that the cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) coating the brain and spinal cord has been breached and is escaping through these areas of the skull. This leaves the brain and its vessels vulnerable to microbes and bacteria, which can enter through the ear and nasal sinuses and colonize the CSF, leading to meningitis.
Other complications in skull fractures may affect one or both eyes, leading to partial or complete blindness, deviation or loss of control of eye movement, pupil dilation and/or constriction abnormalities or bulging of the eyeballs (proptosis) if major blood vessels behind the eyes are compromised and blood collects behind the orbits.
The ear and neighboring structures are also vulnerable, especially since the bone near the temples is comparatively thin and prone to fractures. Complications may include loss of hearing, bruising behind the ear or tinnitis (ear infection). While damage to nerves passing through the auditory tube may affect sensation, taste and salivary function throughout the face and mouth.
The anatomy of the neck makes this area a common casualty in motor vehicle accidents, as most of the important structures (like the carotid arteries, jugular veins, sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves, trachea and esophagus) are located in the front. Any sudden force applied by a seat belt, jerking or rotational movements, may crush the trachea's cartilage (leading to strangulation without immediate medical attention). Other injuries may include shear-damage to major blood vessels (interfering with blood supply to the brain and increasing the risk of coma or death) or damage to nerves that supply the larynx (important in speech and swallowing), breathing muscles and the heart.
The vertebrae and intervening vertebral disks may also be affected by a sudden stop or whiplash action characteristic of vehicle collisions. Vertebral disks are cartilaginous, full of a jelly-like liquid, and can absorb shock up to a point. If this threshold is crossed, herniation and then possible fractures in the neighboring bony vertebrae may occur. Both injuries may pinch nerves emerging from the spinal cord, or result in damage to the spinal cord itself (which may lead to partial paralysis below the injury, coma or respiratory death).
If nerves are pinched by either a herniating disc or vertebral fracture, symptoms may vary in severity, but often include radiating pain, tingling and numbness in the shoulders, chest and arms, loss of muscle movement or muscle weakness. These symptoms often improve with rest, proper diet supplements (including calcium, vitamin D and glucosamine) and exercise. However, nerve pain and other symptoms may persist intermittently years after the injury.
Muscle damage, bruising and tears will often fully heal after a motor vehicle accident, but damaged nerves in the armpit and neck (specifically the spinal accessory nerve and brachial plexus nerves) may result in permanent loss of function to some or all of the muscles in the hand, arm, shoulder and neck. Some regeneration of nerves in these areas has been documented, if the lesions are not extensive and the patient immobilizes the affected areas. In addition, in severe cases of complete nerve loss to the hand and arm, nerve transplants can restore some muscle ability.
Contact a Personal Injury Attorney in Your Area to Answer your Questions and Discuss Your Legal Options
The head and neck, hosting some of the body's most important and complicated structures, are among the hardest hit and areas of most serious injury in car accidents. Always consult a physician and seek the attention of emergency room staff after being involved in even minor collisions, as life-threatening injuries to the brain and body may crop up slowly, impair a patient's judgment and cause permanent damage if not dealt with immediately.
*article courtesy of Brodie & Friedman, PA.