According to the U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), rear-end collisions produce more injuries than any other type of car accident. In 2019, 595,000 rear-end collisions produced injuries.

These rear-end accidents often produce distinctive harms, including injuries to the back and neck. Damage can range from minor muscle strains to permanent spinal cord injuries.

Today, we’ll explore how rear-end collisions injure the back and neck and discuss the ways to seek compensation for these kinds of injuries.

What Happens in a Rear-End Collision?

A rear-end collision happens when a car strikes another car from behind. During the initial impact, the occupants of the front car are pushed back into their seats. Their bodies then whip forward against their seat belts. As the seatbelts stop their bodies, their heads move forward. The airbags might deploy, stopping their heads from striking the steering wheel and dashboard.

In the rear car, the opposite happens. The occupants of the rear car whip forward at the moment of impact. They hit their seatbelts, but their heads continue forward until they strike the airbags. As the vehicle slows after the impact, they are thrown back into their seats, where their heads often strike the headrests.

Back and Neck Injuries in a Rear-End Collision

Rear-end collisions injure the back and neck in a variety of ways:

Back Injuries

When the body and head whip forward, the vertebrae and discs in the back and neck hyperextend. When the body and head fall back into the seat, the vertebrae and discs compress. This violent stretching and compressing action can crush discs, fracture vertebrae, and push discs and vertebrae out of alignment.

Neck Injuries

Neck injuries can result from the opposing actions of the head and the body. As your head whips forward, your seatbelt holds your body in place. This can save you from being ejected from the vehicle or striking the windshield, steering wheel, or dashboard. However, it also places all the strain of your head’s motion on your neck.

It might not seem like much, but the average adult’s head weighs 11 pounds. This means that during a low-speed rear-end collision, an 11-pound weight is pulling on your neck at up to 10 miles per hour. At highway speeds, your head could whip back and forth at 50 miles per hour or faster.

This whipping motion can tear muscles, ligaments, and tendons in the neck. It can also fracture the vertebrae and crush the discs in your neck. These injuries are commonly called “whiplash.”

Spinal Cord Injuries

When the discs and vertebrae compress, break, or slip, they can press on the spinal cord. In some situations, these injuries can sever the spinal cord. A spinal cord injury can produce pain, numbness, and paralysis.

Muscle Injuries

As the body strains against the whipping motion of a rear-end collision, muscles can stretch or tear. The neck and lower back muscles are particularly susceptible to strains and tears because the back and neck hyperextend during the crash.

Symptoms of Back and Neck Injuries in a Rear-End Collision

Injuries to the back and neck can take time to manifest after a rear-end crash. But as you try to resume your normal activities, you might experience a range of symptoms. Many of these symptoms might not seem related to your back or neck. 

Some examples of symptoms include:

  • Neck, shoulder, and back pain
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness, numbness, or pain in the arms, fingers, and hands
  • Weakness, numbness, or pain in the feet and legs
  • Decreased range of motion in the neck and back
  • Muscle spasms in the neck or back
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Loss of balance or coordination

If you experience any of these symptoms, you should consult with your doctor to have them examine your neck and back.

Diagnosing Back and Neck Injuries After a Rear-End Collision

If your back or neck injury is a muscle strain or tear, doctors may diagnose it based on observation. But if your doctor suspects damage to your vertebrae or discs, you may need X-rays or an MRI.

Imaging with X-rays and MRIs can show many of the back and neck injuries that you might have suffered in a rear-end crash. Here are some of the most common injuries:

Fractured Vertebrae

A vertebra looks like a ring with wings. The ring includes the vertebral body where the discs fit and the lamina that surrounds the spinal cord. Doctors define a fracture of the vertebral body or lamina as a major fracture that can cause a vertebra to slip out of place.

The wings are called the transverse processes and the spinous process. A fracture of the wings is less serious, but it can still destabilize the vertebra.

Injured Disc

The spinal discs include a gel-like cushion encased in a fibrous covering. When the disc is damaged, the fibrous covering can collapse or separate. The gel-like interior can bulge from the damaged disc and press on the spinal cord.

Treatment of Back and Neck Injuries

Doctors cannot repair many back and neck injuries. For example, a doctor may recommend lifestyle changes to deal with a damaged disc so that they can avoid removing it. Lifestyle adjustments may include changing jobs or undergoing physical therapy to strengthen the muscles in the back.

If your injury requires surgery, doctors may try to stabilize your back with pins and screws. But in many cases, this will lead to a permanent loss of flexibility in your spine and a lifetime of back or neck pain.

Liability for Back and Neck Injuries in a Rear-End Collision

Liability for rear-end collisions usually lies with the driver of the rear vehicle. In most cases, the driver of the rear vehicle was tailgating or speeding.

In some cases, the driver of the front vehicle bears responsibility for the accident. If the front vehicle cuts off the rear vehicle, the driver of the rear vehicle might not have time to avoid a rear-end collision.

In either case, an accident report should help you and your injury lawyer determine your best path for seeking compensation for your neck and back injuries after a rear-end collision.