The brain and spinal cord use nerves to carry messages to the organs, muscles and other parts of the body in a way that is similar to electrical wiring, and the structure of a nerve even resembles an electrical cable. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons explains that the nerve consists of individual nerve fibers bundled together with an insulating ring of tissue covering and protecting it.
Car accidents can cause nerve damage in a number of ways, such as through whiplash that stretches and tears nerves, direct trauma to the nerve or wounds that sever nerves.
Damage and regrowth
If a person experiences damage to a nerve, he or she may lose function or feeling in the area that sustains the injury. Particularly in the case of sensory nerve damage, a person must take extra care not to burn or cut the affected area because there is no pain response to warn of injury.
The damage may stretch or tear only the nerve fibers inside the insulation, which can prevent its ability to send or receive signals. In this case, the fiber closer to the brain remains healthy and the fiber on the other side of the damage dies, but new fibers may grow inside the insulation and heal the damage.
Some injuries cut through the entire nerve and sever the insulation as well. This typically requires surgery, or else as the new nerve fibers grow back, they may form into a neuroma, which is painful scarring. During surgery, the physician sews the ends of the insulation together so that the fibers may join as they regrow.
It may be necessary to delay the surgery until the skin has healed if there is a crush wound. Nerve grafts may be necessary if there is a gap between the severed ends.
Depending on factors such as age and health, a nerve may grow an inch per month. So, for example, someone who sustains an arm injury may not have feeling in the fingertips for a year after an accident.
The feeling of pins and needles is common as nerve damage heals, and although it can be painful, it generally indicates that recovery is progressing. People typically need physical therapy to keep the joints from becoming stiff, or they may not work even after the nerves have healed. Sensory input may be weak after healing, as well, and the brain may need re-education to begin feeling the affected area again.