Seat Belt Injuries: How They Happen and How To Manage the Pain

We all can agree, car accidents stink. 

They’re inconvenient, require lots of paperwork, and more often than not, result in an injury.

But what stinks, even more, is living in pain every day.

If you’ve experienced an auto-related injury — maybe a minor or severe injury from your seat belt — visiting a chiropractor can help take care of your pain.

Learn about seat belt injuries and how chiropractic care can help with your healing.

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seatbelt injury

Seat Belt Injuries: Know the Statistics

Rules surrounding child safety seats and seat belts have been talked about for years to help substantially reduce the morbidity, mortality, and costs associated with auto accidents. 

Seat belt laws came into effect in the late 1980s, and in 1985, at least one bill made seat belts mandatory in all but two states. Then, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) created rules that all automobiles created after September 1, 1989, would be required to be equipped with safety belts.

Although wearing a seatbelt has decreased major auto-related accidents, it could increase minor auto-related accidents.

In 2020, nearly 24,000 vehicle passengers were killed in an auto-related injury. Of them, 51% were not wearing seat belts. 

One study follows 140 patients seen in one emergency department as a result of an auto injury. Of them, 81 (57%) used seat belts, while 49 (42.1%) did not. 19 patients (13.6%) died from their injuries. Of the 19, 4 were wearing seatbelts while 15 were not, proving the mortality rate of 79%.

injury from seatbelt

4 Most Common Types of Seat Belt Injuries

Injuries related to seat belt use when in an auto accident are commonly referred to as “seat belt syndrome” because they fit a unique profile of injuries caused mainly by a seat belt.

But what injuries can a seat belt cause, exactly?

Things like …

  • Bruising
  • Tenderness
  • Abrasions of the neck, chest, or abdomen
  • Intra-abdominal injuries; and
  • Vertebral fractures

… are most common.

If you’ve experienced an injury from a seat belt, you may need to see a chiropractor for a proper diagnosis and treatment, depending on your injury.

Cascade Spine & Injury has worked with many auto-related injury patients and can help you get back to feeling like your best self, too. Contact us today to get started.

seatbelt injuries

#1: Bruising and Tenderness

Bruising is most common where the seat belt restricts your body. You’ll likely notice bruising along your:

  • Neck
  • Chest
  • Abdomen; and
  • Midsection

You could also experience tenderness from the collision or even whiplash from the force of the collision and the restricting of the seat belt.

#2: Abrasions

It’s common for seat belts to cause skin abrasions from where the belt rubs you during a collision. 

This most often happens along your:

  • Neck
  • Chest; and
  • Abdomen

You might even experience skin abrasions across your back if your seat belt restricted you back into your seat back, causing a scrape from the contact.

Abrasions often appear with bruising and swelling, so don’t be concerned if you notice those as well. Generally, abrasions heal on their own in a few days to weeks depending on their severity.

#3: Vertebral Fractures

Vertebral fractures — sometimes called chance fractures or seat belt fractures — occur when the spine flexes over the lap belt of the seat belt. 

These fractures are often overlooked, but early recognition is critical to increasing positive outcomes.

If you believe you’ve experienced a fracture injury from a seat belt, seek medical attention right away. A CT scan is required for a correct diagnosis of this vertebral fracture.

From there, you may need physical therapy to get a full range of movement back.

#4: Intra-Abdominal Injuries

Because abdominal organs aren’t protected by bones, the force of impact can lead to intra-abdominal injuries as the seat belt compresses into the body to help restrain you during an auto accident.

Most commonly, these injuries include things like:

If an intra-abdominal injury is severe, it is easy to diagnose with a physical examination and a CT scan. But if it’s mild — like a small laceration or perforation of the bowel — it can be difficult to diagnose and could result in a delayed diagnosis. 

How can you tell if you might have an intra-abdominal injury and if it could be serious?

Generally, if the seat belt leaves a mark across your abdomen, you are more likely to have intra-abdominal injury. Conversely, if there is no seat belt mark, there might be no intra-abdominal injury or it could be minimal. 

If you believe there’s a chance you’ve suffered an intra-abdominal injury in an auto accident, seek medical attention right away. 

5 Types of Secondary Seat Belt Injuries

Sometimes, the physical seat belt itself might not be what causes injuries from seat belts in an accident. These injuries, referred to as secondary seat belt injuries, are instead caused by the mechanics of the seat belt — where it’s placed and how it works — during an accident. 

Consider the driver, for example.

His seat belt comes across from his upper left shoulder, down his body diagonally to his right hip. He also has a lap belt across his lower abdomen. If involved in an accident, his seat belt might restrain his left body nicely, resulting in minimal tenderness to that area. However, his right body isn’t restrained as well and he’s now experiencing upper back pain and neck pain from his accident. 

Remember, sometimes signs of an auto injury aren’t immediate — it could take a few days or even weeks to notice pain. Don’t dismiss delayed injuries and seek medical attention with any signs or symptoms.

seatbelt injuries

#1: Spinal Cord Injuries

Seat belts are designed to protect the spine from significant trauma in an auto accident, but that doesn’t mean that spinal cord injuries are preventable. 

In fact, auto accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries in the United States, especially in people between 16 and 30 years old. Car accidents account for nearly half of all spinal cord injuries each year.

If during an accident there is a violent movement that twists, pulls, or causes compression to the spinal cord, it could result in a serious spinal cord injury. This most often occurs during a head-on collision, rear-end collision, or side-impact collision.

There could also be damage to:

  • Ligaments
  • Discs; and
  • Vertebrae

#2: Fractured Ribs

A rib fracture is a common injury during a major trauma, like a car accident. The restraint from the seat belt can lead to a break in the rib which can also cause punctured lungs and lead to pneumothorax.

If you have a fractured or bruised rib, you might have symptoms like:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Tenderness around your ribs or chest; or
  • Pain around your ribs or chest

Depending on the severity of your rib fracture, you may be instructed to rest at home with ice to recover. Otherwise, a chiropractor with experience in auto injuries — like Cascade Spine & Injury — can help.

#3: Shoulder Injuries

Shoulder injuries can occur in both the restrained shoulder and non-restrained shoulder in the event of a car accident. Typically, the non-restrained shoulder experiences the worst-case scenario.

The shoulder restrained by the seat belt might have torn…

  • Tendons; and
  • Muscle fibers

… while the free shoulder could become dislocated from the lack of restraint. 

In either event, a chiropractor can help with your treatment and healing.

#4: Neck Injuries

Neck injuries, like neck sprains or whiplash, often happen when wearing a seat belt in an auto accident because of the forceful and rapid back-and-forth movement that occurs upon impact. The restraint of the seat belt attempting to hold you back while the impact simultaneously thrusts you back and forth can result in serious pain.

An injury to the neck might lead to …

  • Whiplash
  • Cervical vascular injury
  • Clavicle fracture
  • Neck sprain; or
  • Cervical spine fracture

so it’s important to seek medical attention if you’re experiencing any neck pain after an auto accident. 

#5: Lower Back Injuries

Unfortunately, the lower back is very susceptible if you experience a car accident while wearing your seat belt.

Because you are seated and the lap harness of the seat belt keeps your pelvis tight against the seat, your lumbar spine is in an extra compromised position.

You might experience:

  • Torn ligaments
  • Stretched muscles
  • Torn tendons
  • Back strains
  • Low back pain
  • Muscle spasms
  • Disc injuries

Lower back pain of any kind following a car accident is a sign to seek professional medical care. 

injuries fron seatbelt

How Long Do Seat Belt Injuries Last?

Like most things, it’s difficult to say just how long a seat belt injury could last. There are many different types of seat belt injuries and they each can vary in severity from mild to moderate to most severe. 

You can likely expect things like …

  • Soreness
  • Bruising
  • Abrasions; and
  • Tenderness

… to heal in a few days to a few weeks with rest.

Seat belt injuries that are a bit more severe, like …

  • Disc injuries
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Fractures
  • Dislocations; and
  • Neck injuries

… will likely take longer to heal. 

You can help speed up your recovery process and ensure you’re healing correctly by visiting a professional and trusted chiropractor, like Cascade Spine & Injury Center.

Navigating a Seat Belt Injury: How Chiropractic Care Can Help 

Last week, you were in a car accident. You were driving, wearing a seat belt, and rear-ended a car that stopped abruptly at a yellow light. You weren’t driving too fast, but you didn’t walk away from the accident pain-free.

Initially, you noticed some bruising and tenderness across your chest from where your seat belt restrained you during the impact. That seemed normal, and you figured you could recover from that with monitoring for swelling and resting. You were right, and within a week, your bruise was looking better and there was no more pain across your chest.

However, as the week progressed after the accident, you started to experience severe lower back pain. You had muscle spasms when you tried to walk, it was difficult and painful to stand up or sit down, and you knew something wasn’t right.

Would monitoring your pain and resting heal these new symptoms? Probably not.

Visiting a chiropractor after a car accident is always a good idea if you’re experiencing more than the usual soreness and bruising from an accident.

If any secondary or mechanical injuries result from an auto accident, a trained chiropractor will:

  • Assess you through a thorough physical exam
  • Conduct any necessary testing whether in-office or by referring out (e.g. X-rays)
  • Provide a diagnosis
  • Create a care plan
  • Implement the care plan
  • Monitor progress and adjust accordingly
  • Release you from care once healed

Cascade Spine & Injury Center has over a decade of successfully treating auto-related injuries. Don’t live in pain a minute longer. Contact us today to get started.

Cascade Spine & Injury Center: Helping You Recover From Seat Belt and Other Auto-Related Injuries 

Although seat belts can save lives, they don’t always prevent injuries from occurring during an auto accident. 

However, they can minimize the severity of injuries sustained in an accident.

If you’ve experienced any type of auto-related injury, stop living in pain right now and contact Cascade Spine & Injury Center.

Our team of experts specializes in …

  • Chiropractic
  • Acupuncture
  • Massage therapy; and
  • Rehabilitation

… to get you back to feeling like yourself (or better) as quickly as possible.

And on top of being Portland’s most trusted car accident chiropractor, we treat injuries related to the neck, back, shoulder, and spine every day.

Contact us today to book an appointment.

seatbelt injuries

The content in this blog should not be used in place of direct medical advice/treatment and is solely for informational purposes.

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