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Whiplash after a car accident: Everything you need to know.

Whiplash infographic

A distracted driver collides into the back of a vehicle, taking the occupant inside by surprise. On impact, the occupant’s torso moves forward, but their head moves in the opposite direction, causing a sudden and forceful bend in the neck. It happened so suddenly.

What is whiplash?

According to the Whiplash Prevention Campaign, approximately one quarter of all rear-impact auto crashes result in an injury claim due to whiplash. But what is whiplash exactly?

The US National Library of Medicine’s National Institutes of Health defines whiplash as “an acceleration–deceleration mechanism of energy transfer to the neck” that “may result in bony or soft-tissue injuries.” In other words, whiplash injuries are essentially a neck muscle strain caused by the kind of violent, abrupt motions you experience in a car crash. The movement can tear tendons and neck muscles, resulting in inflammation, stiffness and pain.

Diagram of whiplash neck injury

What are whiplash symptoms?

Not everyone experiences symptoms of whiplash in the same way. Your specific injury will depend on the type of accident, your position in the car, the speed of the other driver, your own musculature, and other factors. Generally speaking, the following are common whiplash symptoms you may experience:

  • Neck pain or stiffness
  • Pain between the shoulder blades
  • Blurred vision
  • Pain in the arms, legs, feet or hands
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Low back pain and/or stiffness
  • Nausea
  • Shoulder pain
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Vertigo
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Pain in the jaw or face

What is whiplash associated disorder (WAD)?

All the symptoms described above are examples of whiplash-associated disorder, often called “WAD”. According to the Quebec Task Force, which was developed in 1995 to classify and manage whiplash, WAD symptoms are classified into four levels (or grades) based on the following symptoms:

  • Grade 0: No complaints about the neck. No physical signs.
  • Grade I: Complaint of neck pain (stiffness or tenderness only). No physical signs.
  • Grade II: Complaint of neck pain and musculoskeletal signs such as decreased range of motion and tenderness.
  • Grade III: Complaint of neck pain and neurological signs, including decreased deep tendon reflexes, weakness and sensory deficits.
  • Grade IV: Complaint of neck pain and fracture or dislocation, or injury to the spinal cord.

Why are WAD classifications important?

In the past, proving a whiplash injury claim to an insurance company was difficult, especially when no bones were broken, because x-rays and similar technologies were not able to properly detect soft tissue injuries.

However, now that improved imaging devices such as CAT scan, MRI and ultrasound are capable of showing these soft tissue injuries, insurance companies have become more willing to compensate whiplash victims. The amount of compensation they pay depends upon the nature of your injury, and as far as damages for pain and suffering go, insurance companies use the Quebec Task Force classification system described above to determine a value.

How much can I sue for whiplash injuries?

If you’ve been injured in an accident, you’re likely wondering, “What is my whiplash claim worth?”

The short answer is, it depends.

When you’ve been injured at the fault of another, you can sue for different types of losses that you’ve incurred, such as medical costs and missed time from work. You can also sue for a less tangible type of loss: general pain and suffering. In some provinces, there is a limit on the amount of compensation that can be awarded for pain and suffering if the injured party’s injuries are deemed as “minor injuries”.

In Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, legislation has capped the amount of money you can receive for pain and suffering for people with WAD injury classifications of levels 0-2 to approximately $8,500. However, if your WAD is classified as level 3 or 4, then your pain and suffering damages are not capped.

Remember that this cap only applies to the pain and suffering portion of your claim, not the other losses that you may claim for as well.

What should you do when you experience whiplash?

Car accident injuries do not always manifest themselves immediately at the scene of an accident. In many whiplash cases, symptoms do not become apparent until hours, days or weeks after the accident has occurred.

While a whiplash injury is less severe than a broken neck or serious spinal cord injury, the negative effects can be debilitating over the long term. In fact, almost half of whiplash victims report they still suffer with symptoms two years after the accident.

See your doctor

An important takeaway for injury victims is that insurance companies can’t (or won’t) compensate you without proof of your injuries. Seeking medical attention immediately after a whiplash accident is a necessary step in collecting medical evidence for your personal injury lawsuit.

You must document your injury and recovery, which means visiting your doctor for check-ups and following through with recommended treatments until your symptoms are fully resolved. This medical evidence is crucial to securing full compensation and successfully resolving your claim.

Contact a personal injury lawyer

You should contact a personal injury lawyer as soon as possible after a car accident. Your lawyer will advise you on any steps you need to take to advance your claim and protect your right to compensation. There are also limitation periods that apply to different types of claims, so if you wait too long to contact a lawyer, you may miss your opportunity to file a lawsuit.

At MacGillivray Injury and Insurance Law, we have spent the past 25 years representing car accident injury victims in Atlantic Canada. We understand the negative, and sometimes debilitating, effects that a whiplash injury can have on your life.

If you’ve been injured in a car accident and have been diagnosed with whiplash, contact our firm today for a free consultation.

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