Traumatic brain injury, which is one kind of physical damage that produces neurological problems, occurs in 14.3 percent of all motor vehicle crashes, according to the CDC. Such crashes are the most common reason for TBI hospitalization among those aged 15 to 44 and the leading cause of death for those aged 5 to 24.
But TBI is only one kind of neurological injury that produces symptoms and difficulties. Injuries that involve the nerves themselves without direct damage to the brain are the focus of this article.
How Are Nerves Damaged?
In a car accident, injuries often depend upon the speed and the type of impact forces involved. In physics, force equals mass times acceleration. Therefore, the faster you are going, the more severe the crash is likely to be. Impact forces depend on the mass of the vehicles involved and directional factors, such as whether it is a head-on crash or one that twists your body and head.
Basically, nerves can be damaged in three ways:
- Severed: Nerves that are sliced in two can be severed from all contact with the nervous system and no longer operate.
- Crushed or compressed: Nerves can no longer work properly because of forces that acted upon them.
- Stretched: Forces that elongate a nerve, injuring it, can mean the nerve no longer functions properly.
In a car crash, the common neurological injuries are:
- Whiplash, involving a severe wrenching of the head and neck. Nerves can be stretched or compressed.
- Blunt force trauma, involving striking a body part on a hard surface, which can crush or compress nerves.
- Lacerations, which can mean a cut deep enough to sever nerves.
Type of Neurological Damage: Peripheral Neuropathy
The peripheral nervous system consists of the nerves connected to your spinal cord (central nervous system) and brain. That means just about all of your body—your hands, feet, arms, legs, face, mouth, and even your internal organs—are part of the system. We could not perform everyday tasks if it were not for the peripheral nervous system.
Any kind of neuropathy, or nerve damage, can be produced by accidents and by repetitive motion injuries. Car crashes can certainly leave you suffering from neuropathy (chronic nerve pain), especially peripheral neuropathy, due to a nerve or nerve bundle that has been compressed, crushed, or stretched by external forces. Broken bones, or dislocations, can also be the reason for nerve compression and damage.
Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy include:
- A feeling of pressure or compression, like wearing a tight sock or glove
- Tingling or numbness
- Sharp, stabbing pain
- Weakness or heaviness in your arms or legs
- Feelings of “shocks,” or a buzzing sensation
- Dropping things in your hands on a regular basis
- Various digestive difficulties, including constipation and diarrhea
- Sexual dysfunction (often in men)
- Thinning of the skin.
Cervical and Lumbar Radiculopathy
The compression or irritation of a nerve in the spot where it connects to the spine is called radiculopathy, and it is not a specific condition so much as a general descriptor of the nerves not working correctly. Radiculopathy causes tingling, numbness, pain, and weakness all along the path of the nerve. The disorder can occur anywhere on the spine, with any connecting nerve point, depending on the injury.
This condition is sometimes called a “pinched nerve.” Pain radiates from the source at the spine and can feel as if it originates in a different bodily location. Thus, a lumbar radiculopathy can hurt all the way down a leg, and even seem to start in the lower leg; cervical radiculopathy can hurt all the way to your fingers.
After a car accident, radiculopathy is generally found in the neck (cervical) or lower back (lumbar); it is less commonly found in the middle back (thoracic).
Radiculopathies are usually treated with combinations of anti-inflammatory drugs such as corticosteroids, non-steroidal pain relievers (ibuprofen or naproxen), and physical therapy. Sometimes steroids are delivered by epidural injection, meaning into the space above the membrane surrounding the spinal cord. Physical therapy often means traction, gentle movement, and exercises. Occasionally, surgery may be called for.
Symptoms to Watch for Post-Crash
Perhaps you were in an auto accident—maybe even a pretty serious one—and yet you walked away. You felt okay, basically. But a day or two or seven later, you are suffering. Certain injury signs may not appear until after an accident, sometimes long afterwards. If you or someone you love was recently in a car crash, and initially felt okay but now feel terrible, you might want to check this list of symptoms:
- Headaches, which can develop days after a crash. As with any headache that develops suddenly, you should seek medical attention. It could be caused by serious injury or a blood clot.
- Neck or shoulder stiffness and pain. The symptoms of whiplash, which can be serious, often are delayed.
- Back pain. Reasons for lower back pain can be injuries to ligaments, muscles, or nerves. In rear-impact or side-impact crashes, lower back pain is especially common after an accident.
- Numbness, or the loss of feeling in extremities, which can be another sign of whiplash or damage to the spine.
- Abdominal swelling or pain, which can indicate internal injuries and bleeding. Deep bruising, along with dizziness or fainting, can also indicate internal injuries. Such a condition is life-threatening and requires emergency medical attention.
- Inability to function physically at a normal level, or changes to personality. If you have symptoms of vision, hearing, movement, or memory problems, difficulty reasoning things out, or personality changes including depression, seek help. It could be a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs often after a crash. Symptoms include vivid memories, nightmares, and suddenly crying for no apparent reason. Children are especially vulnerable to PTSD. Seek help should you suspect that you or a loved one is suffering from it.