There is no question that seatbelts save lives. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that seatbelts have saved more than 370,000 lives over the past 50 years, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) write that, “Among drivers and front-seat passengers, seat belts reduce the risk of death by 45%, and cut the risk of serious injury by 50%.”
But, while seatbelts can save lives and prevent serious injuries, they can also cause serious injuries in some cases. In particular, in the event of a severe front-end of rear-end collision, the restraining force of the seatbelt can potentially cause significant trauma in the abdomen, chest and spine. Studies have also shown that seatbelt-induced trauma can be particularly dangerous for certain populations, including children and women who are pregnant.
One of the most common forms of seatbelt-induced trauma is a condition referred to as seatbelt syndrome. The most obvious symptom of seatbelt syndrome is visible trauma referred to as “seatbelt sign.” As explained in a study published in the Journal of Emergencies, Trauma, and Shock:
“Seat belt sign is the characteristic pattern of contusion across the chest wall and abdomen seen in a restrained passenger involved in an [accident]. It is indicative of an internal injury in as many as 30% of cases seen in the emergency department.
“Seat belt syndrome describes the presence of the seat belt sign plus an intra-abdominal or spinal injury. As such, clinicians should have a high degree of suspicion for other injuries in all patients presenting with visible seat belt bruising.”
Along with bruising in the pattern of the seatbelt (i.e., bruising across the lower abdomen and the center of the chest), seatbelt syndrome can also have various other symptoms. However, as car accident victims may not experience these symptoms immediately, it is recommended that anyone who experiences bruising caused by their seatbelt seek medical treatment even if they otherwise feel fine.
Additional symptoms of seatbelt syndrome may include:
- Abdominal, back or chest pain
- Blood in stool or urine
- Changes in bowel or bladder function
- Coughing up blood
- Difficulty breathing
- Weakness in the legs
The term “seatbelt syndrome” can be somewhat misleading. Seatbelt syndrome is not a medical condition itself but rather a broad term used to describe the effects of seatbelt-induced trauma. A car accident victim who has seatbelt syndrome could potentially have several different types of internal injuries, including:
- Internal bleeding
- Organ damage (i.e., bladder, bowel, heart, kidney, lung or stomach damage)
- Rib fractures
- Soft tissue damage (i.e., ligament, muscle or tendon damage)
- Spinal cord injuries
Given the broad range of injuries associated with seatbelt syndrome, the medical needs of car accident victims diagnosed with seatbelt syndrome can vary widely. While car accident victims who only experience bruising may just need time to rest, those who suffer internal injuries may need immediate medical intervention, including emergency surgery.
Other Forms of Seatbelt-Induced Trauma
Along with seatbelt syndrome, the study in the Journal of Emergencies, Trauma, and Shock also identifies several other forms of seatbelt-induced trauma. These include:
Intra-abdominal injuries from seatbelt-induced trauma occur when the waistbelt portion of the seatbelt compresses the area around the stomach. Since there are no bones in the abdomen, the organs in this area are particularly prone to injuries caused by outside forces. This includes injuries such as:
- Hollow viscus injuries
- Intestinal perforation
- Mesenteric tears
- Seromuscular tears
Vascular injuries from seatbelt-induced trauma involve damage to the blood vessels in the back, chest and abdomen. Like intra-abdominal injuries, these can be serous injuries requiring emergency medical intervention. Early signs of vascular injuries include bleeding, swelling and bruising (which may be indicative of internal bleeding), pain, and lumps beneath the skins (which are also indicative of internal bleeding).
The primary risk of bone injuries associated with seatbelt-induced trauma is damage to the ribs. When a seatbelt does what it is supposed to do during a high-impact collision, the force imposed on the ribs can be strong enough to cause fractures.
But, seatbelt-induced trauma can cause vertebrae fractures in the spine as well. The study authors describe this as, “a transverse vertebral fracture, caused by hyperflexion about an axis anterior to the vertebral column” and note these fractures occur in association with intra-abdominal trauma in approximately 50 to 65 percent of all cases.
The term “thoracic” refers to the upper abdominal region and the trunk area from the chest to the spine. Along with rib and vertebrae fractures, another thoracic injury risk associated with seatbelt-induced trauma is the risk of a supra-aortic vessel injury. The aorta is the main artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body, and it is connected to several vessels. In the event of thoracic trauma, these vessels can rupture, causing internal bleeding and presenting risks for a variety of complications.
The study authors identify two specific long-term complications associated with seatbelt-induced trauma: (i) chronic intermittent intestinal obstruction; and, (ii) adhesions. Chronic intermittent intestinal obstruction is a gastrointestinal (GI) disorder with potentially serious consequences. Adhesions are bands of scar tissue that join internal organs or tissues that are not normally connected. These too can have a variety of effects, and both treatment and recovery can be long-term processes.
Pediatric and Pregnancy-Related Injuries
Finally, as noted in the introduction, seatbelt-induced trauma can present particular risks for children and women who are pregnant. Children’s bodies are much more fragile than adult bodies, and this inherently puts children at greater risk due to severe trauma. For women who are pregnant, risks associated with seatbelt-induced trauma include fetal injury, uterine injury and placental abruption.
Discuss Your Legal Rights with a Car Accident Lawyer at Searcy Denney
If you or someone you love has suffered seatbelt-induced trauma in a car accident in Florida, you may be entitled to significant financial compensation. To speak with an experienced car accident lawyer at our offices in Tampa, West Palm Beach, or Tallahassee about your legal rights in confidence, please call 800-780-8607 or request a free consultation online today.