Should You Worry About Seat Belt Bruises from a Car Accident?

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You should never ignore bruising from a seat belt after a car accident. A seat belt bruise may be a sign of seat belt syndrome, a collection of crash-related injuries that could be life-threatening when left untreated.

Seat belt syndrome is a primary injury among passengers involved in high-impact accidents. While seat belts save more lives than all other vehicle safety technologies combined, there is a potential for serious injuries when a seat belt suddenly constricts around your body on impact.

Common seat belt injuries range from moderate abdominal pain to severe internal organ damage and internal bleeding. If you’ve recently been involved in an auto accident and have developed a seat belt bruise along with any of the below symptoms, visit a medical professional immediately.

What is Seat Belt Syndrome?

Seat belt syndrome is the collection of crash-related injuries that result from a traditional shoulder strap and lap belt vehicle restraint system. It is diagnosed by the visual appearance of a bruise across the upper body, known as a ‘seat belt sign,’ with some degree of internal organ injury and/or a bone fracture in the middle to lower body.

Seat belt syndrome is common in high-impact motor vehicle accidents. It is seen in as many as 30% of accident victims treated in the emergency department. Seat belts often save the lives of accident victims involved in high-speed or front-impact collisions, but the force of the restraint during a sudden stop can significantly injure internal structures.

Seat belt syndrome is known to involve organ perforations or holes in the organ wall. Fractured ribs or spinal bones (vertebrae) are also common and  can result in loss of motion or paralysis. When left untreated, seat belt syndrome injuries can be life-changing—and potentially fatal.

Look for These Signs of Seat Belt Syndrome

A medical professional will look for four signs of seat belt syndrome: midsection bruising, abdominal pain, abnormal bowel movements, and loss of motion or paralysis. If you recognize any of these symptoms after a car accident, seek medical care as soon as possible.

Midsection Bruising

Midsection bruising, or a contusion along the midsection, is the tell-tale sign of seat belt syndrome. If your body was thrown forward or restricted against your seat belt during an accident, look for bruising in a belt-shaped pattern across your abdomen and torso.

A seat belt bruise normally lasts upwards of two weeks, though more severe bruises take several months to fade completely.  A seat belt bruise may appear as a green or blue skin discoloration and deepen into a purple or black color over time.

Abdominal Pain

Your abdomen refers to the space between your chest and your pelvis, or what you’d call your belly. Many of your vital internal organs are housed inside of your abdomen, including your stomach, spleen, pancreas, bladder, large and small intestines, and dozens of blood vessels.

When a seat belt restrains you in your seat during a crash, it places the force of impact directly across your abdomen. This pressure can cause a range of abdominal injuries, from the bruising of organs to internal bleeding, all of which can create throbbing or aching pain symptoms.

Abnormal Bowel Movements

Aside from abdominal pain from seat belt syndrome, you should also look for abnormal bowel movements. Internal bleeding and other internal injuries within the abdomen can cause abnormal trips to the bathroom, such as constipation or diarrhea, and change the typical color of your bowel movements. Seek immediate medical attention if you begin to notice dark or bloody stool.

Loss of Motion or Paralysis

The restrictive force of a seat belt can place tremendous pressure on your lower body. This pressure can stretch or tear sensitive soft tissue, like nerve fibers, and fracture important spinal bones. Damage to nerves or other structures in the spine can lead to loss of motion.

Be sure to monitor your mobility and function after a car accident. If you begin to lose sensation in your fingers or toes, or lose your mobility, head to the emergency room or call 911 immediately. When left untreated, loss of motion can lead to permanent paralysis.

Woman in yellow shirt fastens car seat belt.

Common Seat Belt Injuries

Your seat belt likely played a major role in saving your life during a traffic accident. However, there’s also a possibility that you’ve sustained an injury from the force of the restraint. If you were involved in a high-speed or high-impact accident, you might have suffered one of the following common seat belt injuries:

Lacerations and Abrasions

Lacerations and abrasions are common types of seat belt injuries. Lacerations occur when a part of the seat belt cuts into the skin. Abrasions occur when a part of the seat belt scrapes away the top layers of the skin. These soft tissue injuries can occur across any part of the body that comes into contact with a seat belt during an accident.

Lacerations and abrasions are rarely life-threatening, but they may require medical treatment to heal correctly. Like any open wound in the skin, an untreated laceration or abrasion can result in a blood or skin infection, high fever, and deep scarring across the damaged area.

Abdominal Trauma

Traditional lap belts are the primary cause of abdominal trauma from a seat belt. The force of the seat belt across the abdomen can cause a number of abdominal injuries, from tearing the muscles and tendons that hold your organs in place to bruising and puncturing the organs themselves.

Mild abdominal injuries include torn muscles and tendons and surface bruising across the stomach. The symptoms of mild abdominal injuries typically include a temporary reduction in mobility, redness, swelling, and stiffness at the injury site.

Severe abdominal injuries include internal organ damage and internal bleeding from perforated or ruptured organs. Organ damage from a seat belt can create changes in bowel and bladder movements, including blood in stool or urine, and cause an accident victim to cough or vomit blood.

Muscle Pains

Muscle pains are often the result of more serious seat belt-related injuries, like abdominal trauma. However, the placement of a standard seat belt can also damage muscles in the shoulder and neck. The blunt force trauma of a car crash can significantly stretch and tear soft tissue. It’s important to seek medical attention to diagnose the true source of muscle pains after a crash.

Fractured or Bruised Ribs

Vehicle safety technology like airbags and seat belts are the primary causes of bruised and fractured ribs after a car accident. Seat belts can restrict the ribs with enough power that they can bruise, dislocate, crack, or completely break the bone. When this occurs, you can expect to feel swelling and tenderness, deep bruising, and increased pain when sneezing, coughing, or laughing.

A seat belt injury can also bruise or fracture the bones that connect the ribs, such as the sternum or breastbone. Motor vehicle accidents account for 90% of all sternum fractures. It’s essential to receive an x-ray for a proper diagnosis of any bruised or fractured bones after a collision.

Chest Injuries

Seat belts can cause numerous chest injuries, such as injuries to the chest muscles and internal organ damage. In severe accidents, a sudden blow to the chest from a seat belt can cause bruising of the heart, known as a cardiac contusion, or even increase the risk of a heart attack.

Other seat belt injuries, such as fractured ribs, can damage nearby vital organs in the chest. For instance, a cracked rib can puncture or bruise a lung in the chest cavity. These injuries can cause persistent chest pain that worsens when breathing deeply, coughing, or sneezing.

Seat Belt Injury Treatment

Seat belt injury treatment begins with a thorough assessment from a medical professional. Many seat belt injuries occur beneath the skin’s surface, so diagnostic imaging like an x-ray or MRI will be required diagnose the type and extent of the damage.

Once you receive a proper diagnosis, your doctor will prescribe a treatment plan for your specific seat belt injury. Most minor seat belt injury treatment follows the RICE method. Your doctor may advise you to Rest, Ice, Compress, and Elevate the injury.

More severe injuries, such as internal organ damage or similar abdominal trauma, may require surgery and a few days in the hospital to fully recover.

Can I Sue for Injuries Caused By Seat Belts

You may be eligible to sue for injuries caused by seat belts if you were injured in an auto accident that was limited or no fault of your own. When you sue an at-fault driver, you can recoup the expenses directly related to the injury they caused. These expenses are referred to as damages.

The types of seat belt injury damages you could be eligible for include:

  • Medical expenses, including current and future medical care
  • Property damage costs, including vehicle repair fees
  • Lost wages, including sick and vacation days
  • Pain and suffering, including chronic pain

You cannot sue a vehicle manufacturer or retailer for injuries caused by seat belts unless there is evidence that the seat belts malfunctioned. These entities are not responsible for injuries caused by the negligence of another driver, as wearing seat belts alone does not cause injuries.

If you’re unsure if you’re eligible to file a lawsuit for injuries caused by seat belts, it’s important to reach out to a trusted car accident lawyer. A lawyer can review the facts of your case to determine your eligibility and gather information to file your seat belt injury lawsuit as soon as possible.

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Seeking Legal Help After Suffering a Seat Belt Injury

The power of a seat belt can save your life in a car accident, but it can also cause several life-changing injuries. Do not hesitate to seek medical attention if you begin to develop a seat belt bruise after a crash. When left untreated, seat belt syndrome can have lasting ramifications.

Do not hesitate to take action if you have suffered a seat belt injury. Visit your local medical provider for a proper diagnosis, then reach out to a knowledgeable law firm for a free consultation. At David Bryant Law, our personal injury lawyers are waiting to take your call to help you navigate the aftermath of seat belt syndrome.

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David G. Bryant is certified to practice in all state courts in Kentucky, and federal courts in the Eastern and Western districts of Kentucky, Southern District of New York, Southern District of West Virginia, Northern District of Ohio, Middle District of Tennessee, and Western District of Pennsylvania. He is licensed to practice before the United States Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.