Recent studies have revealed that roughly every 1 in 4 who experiences a whiplash associated injury from a car accident will deal with pain for greater than 6 months.
It is also estimated that up to 20% of those who develop neck pain from a car accident have symptoms that last for greater than 2 years.
Unfortunately, car accidents occur far too often….
Data collected from the MN Department of Transportation from 2018 showed that there were nearly 80,000 car accidents in the state that year. Whether its just a simple fender-bender or a higher speed front-end collision, car accidents are a stressful experience. In addition to the physical trauma your body is exposed to, there are the financial consequences and emotional stressors. It is an event none of us are truly prepared for.
The purpose of this blog is to….
First, let us dive deeper into the stats that were mentioned at the beginning of this blog.
Why do so many people develop long-term symptoms and pain following a car accident?
The answer to this question is not an easy one to summarize, but for a lot of people it comes down to neglecting the severity of their injuries. Far too often we hear the story of folks coming in to see us months, if not years, following a car accident because things progressively got worse over time. For most, the first few days after an accident they feel a bit groggy, fatigued, with some generalized soreness throughout their body, but nothing that feels too injured.
In reality, these same people who thought nothing was wrong experienced an intense deceleration force through their body that caused some overstretching to the “support” muscles and ligaments for the neck and back. When these areas around our spine get stressed, they need gradual movement and strengthening to return to their previous state. But instead, most just rest and ice while limiting movement of their neck and back following the accident. This is what leads to the development of chronic symptoms because the true injury has never been fully treated.
Let us go into further detail on post-accident changes that occur in our bodies.
Whether it is the young, healthy construction worker who regularly exercises or the more frail, older adult in her 70s, both will benefit from post-motor vehicle accident treatment. Referring to some recent MRI-based studies, researchers found those who experience a whiplash associated injury will experience over stretching and injury to their deep spinal stabilizer muscles. Following injury, if these muscles are not appropriately strengthened, they do not return to their previous size and strength.
But why not more severe pain post-accident then?
MRIs taken 3-6 months after the accident found that those who do not complete a formal strengthening program were more likely to develop fatty deposits around these deep spinal stabilizer muscles. These MRI changes help explain why people can have only mild pain after the car accident but then develop more severe pain months to years after the injury. If those neck stabilizer muscles never return to their original strength, you’re at risk of re-injury. In addition to the fatty deposits developing at the neck, researchers also observed global muscle atrophy at the neck. Going back to what most folks do after they experience a car accident, rest, ice, and maybe take some pain meds. This helps reduce pain, but never fixes the true injury.
At this point in the blog, I am sure you are more terrified than ever about getting into a car accident.
This information by no means is meant to scare or alarm anyone. The good news is that all these post-accident changes are very reversible and can easily be changed. We just want to stress the importance of EARLY post-accident care. The sooner you get your neck and back moving again after the accident the faster you will recover and less likely you are to develop long-term effects. A few weeks of dedicated exercise will do wonders for preventing future injury and pain. Let’s get into the do’s and don’ts following a car accident.
What NOT to do following a car accident:
Bed rest alone
This is one of the worst things you can do following an accident. We understand that there might be high levels of pain that limit your ability to move, and that rest will help reduce your pain. The issue with ONLY resting is that this will lead to joints becoming tight, muscles becoming weak, and your tolerance for physical activity to continue to decrease.
The more you focus solely on resting the harder it will be to return to previous physical activity. We have mountains of research to support the concept that those who are more active post car accident will have better long-term recovery results.
Rush to get imaging completed
Unless you are over the age of 65 or experience a car accident that involved a vehicle travelling greater than 55 mph, you most likely do not need an x-ray. Most people who experience a car accident will have no significant findings on an x-ray or MRI because the post-accident changes take time to develop (remember the development of fatty deposits in our neck muscles and generalized atrophy). If you are hesitant in seeing a Physical Therapist after an accident, we make it clear to everyone we see that the first step for us is determining if you need to go consult with a doctor and have imagining done. The good news, most don’t need it for a full recovery.
What TO DO following a car accident:
Sounds simple, but we understand this can be an extremely difficult task with car accident-related pain. This is exactly where Physical Therapy comes into the picture. We will help guide your body into movements that are comfortable for you. Motion is Lotion for our joints and the longer they stay in a guarded and stiff position the harder it will be to get them loose again. We will help guide your neck and back range of motion to make sure you do not develop chronic tightness while also reducing your pain. Yes, they can be done at this time! More movement typically means less pain.
Here's how to MOVE!
One strategy we use to get the neck moving again after an accident is to stretch while laying down on your back. Most will have pain moving their neck in a seated position after the accident. So, let us reduce the stress from gravity on your spine by working range of motion lying on your back. Here are some pictures of our favorite post-accident neck movements to work on.
What about those who are in severe pain and don’t feel they are ready to start a physical therapy rehab program?
This is a completely understandable concern following an accident. We just got done talking about how much we will be moving your body and exercising after the car accident and most do not feel ready for that during the first 1-3 weeks after the accident. Your pain following this trauma is very important to us. For anyone following a car accident their first phase of the rehab process is all about pain management. So, for those who feel their pain levels are too high for PT, we say they are the perfect client to get in ASAP! We have tons of tools at our disposal (dry needling is a great example!) that can significantly reduce your pain after an accident. When pain levels have calmed down and you feel ready to move again, we will help guide that movement.
In conclusion, every car accident is different; therefore, everyone’s response afterwards is going to be different!
Whether it is a high speed, head-on collision or a fender bender going less than 15 mph, we highly recommend consulting with a healthcare professional. As physical therapists we can help educate you on your accident-related injuries and set you on a path to prevent long-term pain and dysfunction.
This blog only scratches the surface on what might be your questions and concerns following an accident. For those of you who still have questions on how PT can help you after an accident, give us a call to set up a Free Talk to a PT appointment.
We also offer a Free Discovery Visit with our therapists where you can share your story and find out if we are the right fit for you.