There are over six million passenger vehicle accidents in the US every year. Not all of them were fatal or even injured the passengers. However, should you ever get into an accident, it helps to understand what kinds of injuries to watch for in yourself or your loved ones and how to respond to minimize damage until help arrives.
In any crash, there are three impacts.
- The vehicle hits another object or person, causing structural damage that may harm passengers.
- The sudden stop causes the passengers to collide with their seatbelts, airbags, dashboards, or seats (or something outside of the vehicle if the passenger wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and was ejected from the car).
- The sudden stop causes all internal organs to collide with the surrounding bones.
Depending on the vehicle’s speed, the velocity (if any) of the object they hit, and which direction they faced, you could be injured by all three impacts.
Types Of Injuries
Injuries typically include internal or external, superficial or traumatic, blunt force or penetrating, and bone damage or soft tissue. A key factor for all of these types of injuries is the location of the injury.
One of the more dangerous injuries you may face is traumatic head and neck injuries. The brain is a supercomputer that holds your past, present, and all future possibilities. It has stored everything you’ve learned and experienced, including your understanding of language; the ability to walk; and memories of your first kiss, holding your child for the first time, or saying goodbye to a loved one.
Each part of the brain performs a different function. The location of the traumatic brain injury decides how much the injury will affect your life and abilities. The accident can damage the brain directly, or its force can cause the brain to tear away from the connective tissue holding it in place.
Immediate response: Always have a head injury checked by the ER, as symptoms can grow worse over time and internal bleeds aren’t visible.
Your eyes, ears, nose, cheeks, jaw, and airway can collide with the airbag or the car’s interior.
Immediate response: Protect the airway primarily. Remain upright or tilt slightly forward so debris such as teeth don’t obstruct the airway. Assume neck damage is also present.
Your brain also keeps the rest of your body functioning effectively, causing your heart to beat; your lungs to breathe; and your cells to receive nutrients and oxygen, fight off disease, and repair itself.
Messages from the brain travel down the neck and spread out through the body through nerves. Damage to the neck can compromise any bodily system, cause immense pain anywhere, or end your life. Major blood vessels, your airway, and swallowing mechanisms may also be affected.
The most common injury is whiplash, straining the muscles in the neck when the head moves forward and back too rapidly for the muscles to adjust. It can also damage the vertebrae, pinch nerves, and cause migraines.
Immediate response: Hold the head as still as possible until help arrives (unless it’s unsafe to remain in the vehicle). If you must exit the vehicle, stabilize the neck as best as you can while extracting the injured party from the car.
The thoracic region is the area from your shoulders to the bottom of your rib cage. Your ribs protect your heart, lungs, diaphragm, and, to some degree, your liver. Damage to any of these organs can be life-threatening, requiring immediate intervention. Damage to the ribs (the most common injury) can cause the ribs to hurt the internal organs if the ribs go untreated.
Immediate response: Remember the ABCs. Keep the AIRWAY open; make sure they’re BREATHING and have CIRCULATION, meaning their heart is beating and they aren’t bleeding profusely.
Reminder: It’s a good idea for everyone to get certified in CPR now. It can help significantly in the event of a car accident.
The abdominal region is everything from the bottom of the ribs to the pelvis. Your kidneys, spleen, bowels, stomach, bladder, gallbladder, reproductive organs, and liver live in this area, protected only by abdominal muscle and fat. The possibility for internal organ damage is high, as are internal bleeds.
Note that the seatbelt protects this body area by securing your pelvis and shoulders. A belt around your waist only would bear too much of the force of an accident and potentially damage your insides. Wearing the seatbelt properly can help protect your abdominal region.
Immediate response: In the event of internal damage, the belly may turn purple like a bruise, and the skin will feel hard as the stomach cavity fills with blood. The injured party will need immediate surgery so that they don’t bleed out. If you see this, tell the 911 operator so they can send the fastest help available.
The spine protects the nerves traveling from the brain to the rest of the body, helps you stand upright, and provides much of your strength. The typical injury is herniated discs, where the cartilage between discs gets crushed. As the disc collapses, the vertebrae pinch the nerves through that region, causing leg pain, muscle spasms, muscle weakness, loss of balance, numbness, and loss of motor function.
Immediate response: As with neck injuries, hold very still until the paramedics arrive or try to prevent movement in the spine if you must move someone to safety.
Damage to the arms, legs, hands, and feet is generally not life-threatening unless the crash amputated something and caused extensive bleeding. The exception is a femur break. The thigh bone is the strongest and thickest bone in the body. Breaking it can cause severe shock, which is light-threatening. The muscles can spasm, causing the bone ends to slide and shortening the leg, which puts the femoral artery at risk.
Immediate response: Don’t move the victim. If there’s heavy bleeding, try putting firm pressure on the wound. If that doesn’t work, use a tourniquet and mark the time so the doctors know how long the tourniquet was on. They may be able to save the leg. If not, at least you saved their life.
Crushing injuries should be left alone until the paramedics arrive unless you can safely remove them immediately after the crash. As time passes, toxins build in the blood. A sudden release of the toxins could kill the victim.
For any extremity damage other than major bleeding, support the bone with a splint and see a doctor as soon as possible.
Lacerations, road rash, and burns are all possibilities.
Immediate response: For lacerations, put pressure on areas that are bleeding. For road rash, a doctor will need to clean the gravel out. Keep the victim still to minimize pain. If the patient suffered extensive burns, wet a clean cloth and cover the wound to keep it sanitary and moist until help arrives. Burns are prone to infections.