Each day, it seems, we awaken to the news of yet another horrific car accident somewhere in Connecticut.  We breathe a sigh of relief when we learn that the vehicles were totaled and yet the occupants ‘miraculously’ walked away, seemingly unscathed, because their automobiles had been equipped with airbags. 

We bless the advent of these safety devices.  But few people realize that airbags, while ultimately saving lives, may cause complex injuries themselves.

No one would argue the benefits of having an airbag during a serious accident –- they do indeed save lives.  But if you have been involved in a collision during which your airbag deployed, think twice:  you may have sustained injuries of which you are unaware.

Being in the path of a deploying airbag is like being punched in the face by a pro boxer.

When an airbag inflates, it travels at speeds as fast as 200 mph, and with force of up to 2,000 lbs.  Federal regulations currently require that airbags sufficiently inflate and restrain and protect an unbelted dummy, representing the average adult male, in a crash test into a concrete barrier at 30 mph. To meet this federal requirement, an airbag must inflate in a split second (actually, about 1/30th of a second.) This is faster than a blink of an eye – so fast you can’t even see it happen.

Being struck with such force is likely to cause injury.  While most of these injuries are minor, consisting only of bruises, burns and abrasions, some are more serious, such as broken arms. In extreme cases, such as when the head or chest is against the module when it opens, it is possible for a fatality to result.

Unfortunately, some soft tissue damage can occur without your realizing it.  The airbag very likely could have caused head, neck and jaw injuries – injuries that you may not even notice at the time of the accident.  Women are more likely to be injured than men by airbags simply because they tend to sit lower in the seat and closer to the steering wheel.

Airbag trauma, like whiplash, can rip and tear delicate ligaments that hold joints in place.  These problems can manifest themselves days, weeks or even years after they happen.

One of the most common of these injuries is to the jaw, and it can be among the most painful.  When the disc or jaw joints slip, blood vessels and nerves are pinched, causing radiating pain that can expand to the face.  Even a small misalignment of the jaw eventually may cause vascular headaches that feel like severe migraines.

The one-two punch of an airbag can cause compression of the trigeminal nervous system of the face, which is responsible for sensation and mechanical jaw motion, leading to displacement of the temporomandibular joints (TMJ) that manifests in compromised opening of the mouth.

Jaw injuries also can impact the inner ear.  Inner ear trauma can cause a host of symptoms that range from dizziness to congestion and a feeling of stuffiness or “fullness” in the ear – a condition that may lead you to think you have developed or aggravated your allergies.

YouTube video

In the medical world, airbag injury is also known as hyper acceleration/deceleration injury; simply put, your head and neck are flung forward at the time of front-end impact, and then quickly thrust backward by the airbag.  Intra-cranial hemorrhage, concussion, corneal abrasion, impaired visual acuity, even orbital blow-out fracture (in which the eyeball is dislodged from the socket) all can result from airbag deployment.

In the aftermath of any incident in which an airbag has deployed, it is important to contact your primary care physician even if you don’t think you have been injured.  It is especially important that this be done early, because if you delay, scar tissue could form, making any necessary treatments much more difficult.

And, if you are bothered by allergies this year and don’t normally have them, consider whether you have been in a vehicle in which the airbag has inflated. Even if the airbag did not deploy, a fender bender at speeds as low as 8 mph could cause your head to be thrust about with sufficient force that injury could occur.  In either instance, see your physician.

Patricia A. Richard, MD, DMD, practices in Fairfield.