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Spinal Cord Injuries From Car Accidents: How They Happen

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Posted on October 20, 2023

The human brain and spinal cord work together to allow for body movement and other vital functions of the body. For instance, when a person takes a step, the brain sends a signal through the delicate nerves in the spinal cord to set their legs in motion. Despite the protection of a bony column of vertebrae surrounding the spinal cord, it remains susceptible to injuries and damage from physical trauma. Unfortunately, a serious car accident provides the type of trauma often associated with a spinal cord injury.

Force and Impact in a Car Accident

Most people feel relaxed during a car ride. It’s easy to forget that you’re hurtling along at high speed while you’re listening to a favorite podcast or playlist, or talking with your spouse or children. However, a 100-pound adult traveling in a car at only a sedate 30 miles per hour becomes a 3,000-pound force in a car accident. In actuality, most adults weigh more than 100 pounds and most accidents happen at far greater speeds than 30mph. The crash force of a human body is the person’s body weight multiplied by the speed of the moving vehicle.

In a car accident, that tremendous force is more than the human body can withstand. The jarring force of the sudden stop alone is enough to cause substantial injury to the spine as the body hurtles forward against the seatbelt and then back against the seat. While a seat belt spares the lives of many motorists by preventing them from forcefully exiting the vehicle or hitting the interior of the car, it cannot prevent all injuries.

Crash experts warn that there are actually three collisions in every car accident:

  • The vehicle’s collision
  • The human’s collision
  • The internal collision inside the human body from the crash force

Another way experts explain crash force and the body is as similar to a fall from a building. Each 10 mph is equal to another story of the building. A crash at 60 mph is equal to the force of falling from the sixth floor. 

What Happens to the Spine During a Car Accident?

Even with a seatbelt in place, the sudden back-and-forth jarring motion of a car accident can crush one or more of the vertebrae surrounding the spinal cord. With sufficient force, the bones may splinter, causing a tear in the bundle of nerves running through the center of the vertebrae. Some accidents may completely sever the spinal cord. 

When a motorist fails to wear their seatbelt, the body may twist dramatically during the car crash, sometimes causing damage to the spinal cord. Outward impacts with obstacles inside the vehicle such as the dash, window, or seatback cause blunt force trauma that may damage the spinal cord.

Understanding Spinal Cord Injuries After a Car Crash

When the delicate nerves inside the fibers of the spinal cord suffer damage or severing, the brain no longer has a pathway to the muscles and nerves below the level of the injury. In general, the higher up on the spinal cord the injury occurs, the greater the extent of dysfunction. Paraplegia refers to paralysis in the lower body while quadriplegia or tetraplegia is paralysis in both the upper and lower limbs as well as the body’s trunk.

Spinal cord injuries are life-altering, causing significant disability. Because nerve tissues don’t regenerate, a serious spinal cord injury causes permanent impairment. Speak with a San Diego personal injury lawyer today if you believe you may have a case.