Car Accidents and Kids = Hidden Damage!

Written by Dr.Scott Rosenthal. Posted in Family Health.

It looks like something you would see at a NASCAR event.  It's made to lock and tether.  The contoured seat sports a harness with two pink terry cloth strap pads.  Without the presence of stale, crushed Cheerios, one may even mistake the infant seat as a throne fit for NASA’s next shuttle mission.

  Today's car seat technology for children is truly impressive.  However, safety may be an illusion.  The false notion that a child’s car seat forms a protective cocoon, coupled with the inability of an infant or young child to communicate his or her symptoms, or be taken seriously when a complaint is voiced, can be a dangerous combination.  Injuries sustained in even minor car accidents are often hidden or ignored.  Injuries may produce no outward symptoms, elude the untrained eye, alter function and rob a child of his or her full potential.

Many times parents have entered my office following an automobile accident and have voiced severe complaints.  I'll ask if children were also in the car.  A typical response is “Oh yes, but they’re fine.”  Many times the possible presence of a child’s injuries are dismissed because the accident was considered to be minor, especially if the accident occurred when the vehicle was traveling at a low speed.  Vehicle speed and degree of damage to the car are not reliable indicators of injury to the passenger.[1]  Research has found that injury to the neck may occur after a rear-end collision at speeds as low as two miles per hour.[2]  It is important to note that neck injuries may also occur when the child is properly restrained.[3]

As with adults, conditions in children may not manifest symptoms for months or years following an accident.  When present, symptoms may not be as obvious as an inflamed and painful neck, headache or numbness in the forearm and hand as would be in an adult.  Trauma may be exhibited in an infant or toddler as irritability, lethargy, poor feeding (especially when it’s only with one particular side when breast feeding, or a certain position when bottle-feeding) and restlessness.  Older children may complain of pain and restricted movement, fatigue, and headaches, but may not articulate this as well as an adult would.


A child’s body proportions are different from those of an adult.  This difference leads to a higher risk of spinal, joint and neurological injury. Children have a larger head to body size ratio.  Their center of gravity is higher.  The muscle and connective tissues are less developed and weaker.   The pelvic height is shorter.  Add these factors to the inability of a child to express symptoms, and you have a recipe for future disaster.

Unlike the lower neck injuries seen in adults, children are more often injured in the upper neck.  Damage diagnosed on x-rays in the necks of children eight years old or younger is rare and extremely rare in infants that are 26 months or younger.[4]  Spinal cord injury has been seen in cases where no x-ray evidence of injury was viewed.[5]  Although disc injury is uncommon in children, the trauma caused by an accident, even minor accidents, initiates the process that leads to early spinal disc degeneration.[6]


With both adults and children, the focus should be on taking preventative safety measures, such as proper car seat and restraint use.  Visit for helpful information and for fitting stations. 


Following an accident, careful examination by a qualified health practitioner experienced with caring for the unique biomechanical and neurological injuries sustained by automobile accidents is essential.  One should seek care promptly, even if symptoms are mild or absent.  Doctors of chiropractic have extensive training and are highly qualified to help one overcome the unique conditions caused by accident trauma.  If a chiropractor is needed for a child, although many of us do work with children, it is important to first check to see if the doctor practices pediatric chiropractic on a routine basis.  


Often during examinations, I have seen teens and 20-somethings with severe problems ranging from tingling down the arms to advanced degenerative changes in the neck that involved the discs.  Their histories often include a whiplash injury that occurred up to 15 years earlier.  When the patient is asked about the accident, the same answer prevails…”I was stiff and sore for two weeks, but it went away with Motrin.”  The body compensated and the warning symptoms ceased.  It did not go away!  This scenario can be avoided.  Get checked immediately following an accident, and don't forget the infants and small children.  Keep buckling-up, strap-in junior and keep in touch with your doctor of chiropractic!

[1] Teasell RW, McCain. 1992

[2] Emori R. 1990

[3] Hoy G, Cole WG. 1993

[4] Rachesky et al. 1987

[5] Pang D, Wilberger JE jr. 1982

[6] Jackson R. 1977.


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