Auto Accident Back Pain: How To Treat Pain After A Car Crash

The structure of the human body is not designed to withstand the severe and sudden forces exerted during a vehicle collision. Such incidents can cause the spine to twist and stretch the muscles and ligaments beyond their normal range of motion, resulting in a variety of back injuries. These may include simple muscle strains, ligament damage, and nerve compression.

The severity of these injuries can vary greatly, ranging from minor lumbar sprains to more severe conditions such as spinal fractures or disc herniations, which can lead to spinal cord damage in extreme cases. The areas of the back most susceptible to injury in a car crash include:

  • the lumbar region
  • the thoracic spine
  • the cervical spine

This article outlines the symptoms of back pain after a car crash, the most common types of back injuries, and how to manage and treat it, so you are equipped with information to better manage your symptoms.

Symptoms of back pain after a car crash

After you've been in a car accident, you might not feel pain right away because adrenaline can mask it. It's important to watch out for back pain signs that might show up later. Chronic back pain is defined as pain that has been around for more than 3 months1 and can be a long-term result of car crashes. Here are some signs to look out for:

  • Muscle spasms that range from slight tremors to severe pain.
  • Less flexibility and stiffness in your back.
  • Pain that spreads down to your legs.
  • Numbness or tingling in your legs or back.
  • Difficulty standing or walking.

If you notice these symptoms after a car accident, it's important to get medical help right away.

Importance of seeking immediate medical treatment

After an significant incident such as a serious car crash, it's crucial to get medical help quickly. Prompt treatment doesn't just stop things from getting worse; it also helps support the healing process right away. Getting checked out early can make a big difference in how fast you recover instead of dealing with long-lasting, serious back pain.

Even a relatively minor car accident can cause significant back injuries, so if you notice more than a few minor bruises and muscle aches check in with your regular doctor as soon as possible. If you wait too long before getting checked, these injuries can sometimes into chronic pain that needs long-term treatment. A check-up soon after a car accident can speed up your recovery.

Common types of back injuries from car accidents

Common back injuries from a car crash can include strains in the lumbar region, herniated discs, and injuries to the facet joints. Each of these injuries has its own set of challenges and symptoms, and they all require specific approaches to treatment for proper recovery.

Lumbar sprains & strains

A 2023 study found that lumbar strains were 10 times more common than any other lower back injury after a collision2. A lumbar strain occurs when the back's ligaments are stretched or torn beyond their limit due to the intense force of a car accident. This injury can lead to a variety of symptoms including:

  • stiffness in the back
  • decreased range of motion
  • pain that might extend to the lower parts of the body.

The level of discomfort from a lumbar sprain can vary greatly. Some people might only experience a mild ache, while others could have severe pain that radiates down to the legs and even to the toes.

Herniated discs

The immense forces involved in a car accident can cause a herniated disc, and it's not unusual for the symptoms to take a few days to appear.

A herniated disc happens when one of the cushion-like pads between your spinal bones becomes damaged. Specifically, it's when the inner part of the disc pushes out through a gap in the outer layer. This can press on or irritate nerves close by and cause a lot of pain.

People with a herniated disc often feel a sharp and intense pain that makes everyday activities difficult. It can also lead to pain that feels like it's coming from your nerves, as well as muscle strains. Herniated discs usually heal on their own, with pain often starting to subside within 2–6 week and the healing process being complete within 16 weeks.

Research from 2017 revealed that head-on collisions are most likely to cause bulging discs (discs that haven't completely herniated), while nerve pain from herniated discs is most commonly seen following side-swipe collisions. The study also discovered that 76.5% of individuals referred to a pain clinic for back pain had some form of lumbar disk displacement3.

Facet joint injuries

The sudden and powerful forces in a car accident often lead to injuries in the facet joints. These injuries can cause stiffness, spasms, and pain that spreads throughout the body. If a person already has a condition such as spinal stenosis, it could make the injuries worse.

They can be complex, involving damage to the joint, wearing down of cartilage, or loss of the joint's natural lubricating fluid. These injuries usually cause significant pain and need careful evaluation for a proper diagnosis.

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How is back pain diagnosed?

It's not always necessary to identify the exact cause of back pain, and having scans or other imaging doesn't increase your chances of a quick recovery.

However, particularly after a significant accident, you or your doctor may want to conduct some tests to check for certain serious injuries or issues, and to identify the exact cause of your back pain. Medical experts use various diagnostic methods to achieve this:

  • X-rays: These help reveal fractures or misalignments in your spine. They're good for seeing bone issues but less effective for soft tissue injuries.
  • MRI scans: These provide detailed images of soft tissues, such as muscles, ligaments, and discs.
  • CT scans: By combining different X-ray images, they offer a complete view in cross-section.

Using these diagnostic tools, doctors can gain a clear picture of your injuries to create a tailored treatment plan.

Emotional impact of chronic back pain

Chronic back pain isn't just about the physical discomfort – it's also about the emotional burden it carries. And the emotional impact of a car accident can also be high.

Enduring pain day after day can take a toll on your mental wellbeing, leading to issues such as depression, anxiety, and elevated stress. These emotional effects can touch every part of your life, from your ability to enjoy personal activities to the way you interact with others.

Addressing both the mental and physical aspects of chronic back pain is essential, especially because emotional distress can worse pain symptoms.

Stress-management techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and professional psychological support are key in dealing with the emotional fallout of chronic pain. Simple practices, such as mindfulness and deep breathing exercises, can be very effective in easing symptoms and helping individuals navigate the complexities of chronic pain.

How to treat back pain after a car crash

Addressing the effects of a vehicle collision can include developing a treatment plan that aligns with the specific nature, location, and severity of your injury. Such a plan may include a combination of physical therapy, medication for pain relief, or chiropractic adjustments, depending on what's most appropriate for your condition.

Physical therapy

Physical therapy proves to be a highly effective method for reducing discomfort, enhancing mobility, and helping individuals regain their strength. Physical therapists work in partnership with their patients to develop tailored exercise and stretching routines. These plans are designed to not only address the injured area but also to improve overall flexibility and muscle strength. During the recovery process, various techniques are utilized, such as heat therapy, which helps to ease muscle tightness, and gentle stretching exercises, which maintain the soft tissues' flexibility.

The main goal is to build greater strength and flexibility, leading to healthier movement patterns that not only speed up recovery but also significantly reduce the risk of enduring chronic pain conditions in the future.

Chiropractor

Chiropractors focus on manually manipulating the spine to alleviate back pain, avoiding invasive treatments. It's a treatment that many patients find satisfying, and can complement other treatments, contributing to a holistic recovery plan for managing back pain effectively. One study showed that after four weeks, patients who received more chiropractic adjustments reported a notable improvement in both pain and their ability to carry out daily activities13.

Manipulations and adjustments are considered "passive therapies", so if you only ever receive short-term relief or your practitioner wants to see you for more than 10 sessions, consider looking for an alternative provider who may be more familiar with the modern science of pain.

Exercise

Engaging in gentle physical activities is often the most beneficial way to alleviate symptoms of back pain. Activities such as walking, swimming, and simple exercises that build strength can be quite effective. While stretching alone may not offer long-term relief, it can provide short-term comfort and aid in relaxation, especially before sleep or during periods of stress.

Home-based care strategies

In the aftermath of an auto accident, there are several home care techniques that may aid your recovery.

  • Initially, rest can allow your body to heal from the impact, although avoid total bed rest and go for some gentle walks if you can to get your joints and muscles moving.
  • Ice packs can be applied to the injured area for 15-20 minutes at a time in the first two days to help reduce inflammation and alleviate pain and noticeable swelling.
  • Heat therapy, such as heating pads or warm baths, may help relax muscle spasms.
  • Gentle stretches and light physical activities can strengthen muscles and improve flexibility.
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers may provide temporary pain relief. It is important to consult with a healthcare provider before starting any medication.

These home treatments should be used in conjunction with, not as a replacement for, professional medical advice and care.

How long does it take to recover from back pain after a car accident?

The journey to recovery after a car accident is as individual as the accidents themselves. Some people might notice their mild back pain disappearing within a few weeks, while others may endure more severe pain for longer periods if they don't receive proper care. Recovery times are not set in stone and greatly depend on the nature of each person’s injuries.

For example, those with herniated discs typically begin to feel relief from pain within two to six weeks after the injury occurs, with the healing process taking up to 16 weeks.

On the other hand, muscle strains and sprains in the back often heal more quickly, generally within one to two weeks, and up to eight weights for a full recovery.

Injuries like whiplash, however, may start to improve soon after the accident, with full recovery expected around three months later, provided they are managed correctly.

Prevention tips for future back pain

A comprehensive review of research conducted in 2020 found that individuals who have endured low back pain as a result of a car accident are 2.7 times more likely to encounter such discomfort again in the future4.

As we look to prevent back pain, a healthy lifestyle tends to lead to a healthier spine:

  • Stay active, aiming to exercise regularly and keep moving throughout the day, rather than standing or sitting still for long periods of time.
  • Eat a balanced diet and aim to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Stop smoking if you currently smoke.
  • Aim for 7–8 hours of sleep each night.
  • Maintain good posture to reduce the burden on your back muscles and ligaments.
  • Find ways to manage stress and emotional burdens, such as by scheduling time for regular relaxation and self-care, practicing mindfulness, and reaching out to a therapist if things are difficult.

By following these practices, you can help avert future back pain and contribute to the overall health of your back.

More information

At MoreGoodDays®, we've developed a comprehensive program rooted in scientific evidence to assist you in managing chronic back pain. Our program aims to dispel prevalent misconceptions about back pain, emphasizing the need to comprehend its underlying causes, recognize what exacerbates it, and learn how to modify your body's response to pain through the principles of neuroplasticity.

We offer personalized coaching and a suite of practical tools designed to help you navigate pain management, foster mental health, and promote your overall well-being.

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