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What’s Causing Neck & Low Back Pain After a Car Accident?

Neck and Low Back Pain After an Auto Accident

Lower back and neck pain are common side-effects of car accidents. This comprehensive guide explains why injuries are so prevalent and what can be done for whiplash.

According to figures from the National Safety Council, over 38,000 people in the US needed medical attention for injuries caused by car accidents in 2019. 

Collisions on the road can contribute to a host of injuries, affecting all parts of the body.

In some cases, injuries are mild, but in others, they can be severely debilitating. One of the most common problems crash victims face is coping with whiplash, a condition that causes neck and low back pain.

Whiplash is a soft tissue injury, which can cause acute, short-term pain, as well as long-term discomfort. It occurs as a result of sudden flexion and extension of the neck, which is brought about during the impact of a crash. In many cases, car crashes cause the individual to jolt forward and backward very quickly. It is worth noting that whiplash can occur at low speeds. According to researchers at Rush University, injuries can occur when vehicles are traveling at speeds of 5-10mph.

In this guide, we’ll discuss the effects of car accidents and cover some of the most significant causes and types of back and neck injuries after a car crash.

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Why do car accidents cause neck and low back pain?

Road traffic accidents are one of the most common causes of whiplash and conditions that affect the spine. The spinal column comprises a series of vertebrae, which are separated by discs. The vertebrae provide support and stability for the entire body. Although the column is robust, it is also sensitive, and it is not designed to take the level of impact generated by a collision involving two vehicles. The pressure that is applied to the spine can cause both short-term and long-term back injuries, and there may also be more widespread damage attributed to damage to the discs and the muscles and connective tissue surrounding the spine.

The spine is divided into three main sections. These include:

  • Cervical: the cervical region is located within the neck. These bones play an integral role in supporting the weight of the head.
  • Thoracic: the thoracic region is the mid-section. Its primary function is to support the rib cage and shield the heart and lungs.
  • Lumbar: the lumbar region represents the lower back. This part of the back supports the weight of the entire body. The vertebrae in this part of the spine are much larger and stronger.

This diagram provides a clear picture of the different parts of the spinal column:

Spine After A Car Crash

If you are involved in an auto accident, it can take time for the symptoms of a back injury to develop. Some people will experience severe pain, a loss of feeling or restricted movement instantly, while others may start to suffer from pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility days or even weeks later.


Types of neck and low back pain injuries caused by auto accidents

There are two main categories of back injuries associated with car accidents: discogenic injuries and facet joint injuries. Discogenic symptoms affect the discs, the pads that provide a cushion between the vertebrae. These discs are designed to act as a shock absorber, but they are only capable of withstanding a certain amount of force.

When two vehicles collide, or a car hits a tree or a fence, for example, the force is significant, and the spine is susceptible to damage. Facet joint injuries affect the facet joints. These small joints are located both between and behind the vertebrae and they are designed to provide stability.

Discogenic injuries

Discogenic injuries cause pain, which is associated with different types of ailments that affect the spine.

Back pain

Back pain is very common following a car accident. Discogenic back pain results from damage to the discs and it usually affects the lumbar region of the spine. If more than one disc is damaged, or the individual involved in the accident already has significant back problems, discogenic pain can be severe. In the case of car crashes, the pain usually occurs as a result of a lumbar sprain, spinal stenosis, or a herniated disc.

  • Lumbar sprain: lumbar sprains are caused by excessive pressure on the lower region of the back, which causes overstretching of the muscles and connective tissue.
  • Spinal stenosis: spinal stenosis is a condition that occurs when the bone channel that contains the nerves and the spinal cord narrows. In the case of trauma, this is often the result of a ruptured disc or an obstruction, for example, a fragment of bone tissue, reducing space within the canal. This contributes to increased pressure on the nerves, which in turn, intensifies the pain.
  • Herniated disc: a herniated disc refers to the soft filling of the disc jutting out through the external casing. When the filling comes into contact with the nerves, this can be extremely painful.

Discogenic pain affects people in different ways. Some will experience discomfort when they are lying still and resting, while others may find that movement triggers pain. It is also possible for the pain to radiate from the spine, causing individuals to develop discomfort in different parts of the body, including the legs, the buttocks or the groin. This is known as sciatica and it can be debilitating for many people.

How is lower back pain diagnosed after a road accident?

If you have been injured in a road accident, it is critical to seek medical advice. In some cases, where injuries are severe, emergency assistance may be required, and you will be cared for by a hospital-based team. Even if you don’t experience symptoms instantly, it is still wise to get checked out by a car accident doctor, as collisions can cause injuries that are not visible to the eye and produce delayed and hidden symptoms, for example, concussion, back pain, and internal bleeding.

If you do have back pain after an accident, examinations, and scans, for example, an MRI or CT scan, will be used to identify potential abnormalities and inform treatment choices.

What can be done for discogenic pain?

There are several potential treatment options for patients who experience discogenic pain. The findings of investigations, scans, and tests will be used to determine which methods and therapies are best, and in many cases, doctors will recommend a combination of treatments. Treatments include:

  • Physical therapy: physical therapy is an integral part of the recovery and rehabilitation process for those who sustain back and neck injuries in a car accident. The aim of treatment is to build up strength and improve mobility and flexibility using targeted exercises, which can be done in the hospital, as well as at home.
  • Medication: medication is used to manage and reduce pain and to decrease inflammation. In addition to analgesics (painkillers) and anti-inflammatory drugs, patients may also be prescribed with additional medications depending on their symptoms and general health status. Corticosteroid injections may be recommended for intense pain.
  • Surgery: surgery tends to be a last resort and it is generally only carried out when patients have prolonged or severe pain, which cannot be eased using other treatment methods. As technology advances, procedures are becoming less invasive. One example of a procedure that is used today is Intradiscal Electrothermal Therapy (IDET), which is designed to prevent pain by cauterizing nerve endings.

Herniated & Bulging Disc After Car Crash

Facet joint injuries

The facet joints have a crucial role to play in supporting body weight and aiding mobility. These joints work in tandem with the discs to allow carefully controlled movement and prevent the spinal column from moving excessively in a single direction. Facet joint injuries cause a diverse range of symptoms, including:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Acute pain
  • Throbbing pain in the lower back
  • Tenderness
  • Swelling

In most cases, facet joint injuries can be diagnosed using X-rays. However, additional tests may be ordered, including CT and MRI scans. Doctors also use a diagnostic technique known as a facet joint block, which involves injecting dye to highlight potential problem areas.Facet Joint Injury in Auto Accidents

How are facet joint injuries treated?

Treatment for a facet joint injury will often depend on the severity of symptoms. Examples include:

  • Hot and cold therapy: using hot or cold compresses can help to alleviate pain and reduce swelling
  • Medication: medication can be used to decrease inflammation and manage pain
  • Exercise and physical therapy: moving the body can help to restore mobility and strengthen the spine. It is essential to seek the advice of your doctor or an experienced physical therapist before attempting exercise. Many physical activities are not suitable for patients who are prone to back and neck pain.
  • Rest: it’s important to listen to your body and to take time out if you are tired, your body aches, or you’re in pain.

How is back pain treated following a car accident?

Car accidents can cause a diverse range of injuries, and treatment options will depend heavily on the type of injury and the severity of symptoms. Mild whiplash, for example, is a very different proposition to damaged discs, spinal fractures, and nerve damage.

Doctors will assess the gravity of injuries using diagnostic methods such as X-rays and CT and MRI scans, and they will also talk to the patient to get a better idea of the kinds of symptoms they are experiencing. Once a diagnosis has been confirmed, the care team will discuss the treatment options with the patient. Globally, back pain is the most common cause of disability and in the US, over 50% of working adults experience symptoms every year.

The most common types of treatment for back pain include:

  • Medication: drugs, such as anti-inflammatories and analgesics, are used to target pain and reduce swelling
  • Physical therapy and strengthening exercises
  • Gentle exercise (always consult a doctor or a physical therapist first)
  • Hot and cold compresses
  • Nerve block therapies: treatments such as local anesthetic and steroid injections can help to tackle severe pain
  • Surgery: surgery is usually a last resort, and it is used to treat patients with severe symptoms. Examples of surgical procedures include spinal laminectomy, discectomy, IDET, and vertebroplasty

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Low back and neck pain are common following a car accident. The impact of a collision can cause damage to the components of the spinal column, contributing to both acute and chronic pain.

If you have been involved in a car accident, and you think you may have whiplash, it is crucial to seek medical advice.

Call 1-800-897-8440 today to find an experienced doctor near you to diagnose and treat your neck and pain after an auto accident.


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