Lower Back Pain From Car Accident
A high-impact car accident exerts an excessive amount of force against the back and spine. As a result, car accidents are among the leading causes of back pain, especially neck pain and lower back aches.
Common injuries include chest pain from the impact of the steering wheel, air bag or seat belt, neck or back pain from being jostled in the seat, and cuts or bruises from debris. Bodily pain and discomfort may develop right away or arise sometime later.
It is important to receive a thorough examination from a healthcare professional, such as a physical therapist, after any type of car accident — injuries that are not properly treated can lead to long-term issues.
Common Car Accident Injuries Linked to Lower Back Pain
Moderate to serious car accidents can cause major damage to various structures in the spine or back, making lower back pain particularly common following this traumatic event. Even a minor crash can alter body posture and cause an unexpected back injury. Frequently reported injuries include:
- Sprains and strains
- Spinal disc damage
- Joint injuries
Whiplash is one of the most common types of car accident injuries. This injury occurs when the head and neck rapidly move backward and then forward upon impact. A whiplash can tear and damage ligaments, muscles, tendons, nerves, bones, and discs in the cervical spine, which consists of seven bones that span the length of the neck.
Damage to the cervical spine or the spinal nerves in this region extend to the shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, chest, and lower portion of the rib cage. This means that whiplash can lead to pain in any part of the upper body as well as the lower back.
In addition to experiencing potential injuries in the cervical spine, sprains and strains in the thoracic or lumbar spine are also frequently treated after a car accident. A sprain refers to a damaged ligament, while a strain develops when a tendon or muscle is injured.
A thoracic sprain, for example, may lead to chest, rib, or abdominal pain as spinal structures in this region originate at the base of the neck and extend down the abdomen. The pain may also radiate toward the lower back.
Similarly, if a car accident causes a lumbar spine strain, chronic lower back pain may develop. In general, if tendons, muscles, or ligaments become torn or overstretched due to a car crash, an individual may experience persistent back aches, painful muscle spasms, and tightness, among other complications (e.g., nerve damage).
Although whiplash, sprains, and strains are some of the most frequently reported complaints after a car accident, spinal disc damage is another potential injury that is associated with lower back pain. There are 23 spinal discs positioned between spinal bones (vertebrae) that provide support, cushioning, and shock absorption during movement. A high-impact car crash can displace and damage one or more of the protective discs in the spine. This can lead to annular tears, bulging discs, or herniated discs.
An annular tear is an injury that occurs when the annulus, the ligamentous tissue that makes up the outer layer of the disc and connects the spinal disc to the vertebrae, tears. The most common symptoms are sharp pain and inflammation in the region where the tear occurred. Once an annual tear develops, it increases the risk of future tears, bulging discs, and disc herniation.
Each of these injuries can cause lower back pain, but a herniated disc is typically more severe because it swells and takes up space, potentially putting a significant amount of pressure on surrounding nerves. This type of nerve root irritation, also known as nerve compression, is linked to inflammation, intense pain, mobility problems, and/or weakness, tingling, and numbness in the extremities.
Another common complaint from individuals who experienced a traumatic car crash is a joint injury. More specifically, facet joint damage may occur due to the impact. Facet joints are small joint structures located on each side of the spine that connect vertebrae to vertebrae and provide the spine with movement and support.
If a facet joint is damaged during a car crash, acute inflammation may lead to persistent pain. Facet joint inflammation also increases the risk of developing a condition called facet joint syndrome. Symptoms associated with this condition include lower back pain and referred pain in the pelvis, buttocks, thighs, and legs. The loss of spinal flexibility, muscle weakness, and tenderness may develop as well.
There are additional types of car accident injuries that can lead to long-term issues if left untreated, but whiplash, sprains, strains, disc damage, joint issues, and lower back pain are the most common problems that typically arise due to head-on or rear-end collisions. Side impact car accidents are linked to similar injuries, but the effects of this type of impact may be more devastating for a number of reasons.
Side impact crashes, also known as broadside collisions or T-bone accidents, can cause more damage to the human body than any other type of car accident. Most vehicles have safety features in place to protect drivers and passengers from head-on and rear-end collisions, such as seatbelts, airbags, and bumpers. But individuals are relatively unprotected from side impact car crashes. Some newer vehicles have side airbags, but most offer little to no protection besides a car door.
Consequently, side impact crashes account for the deaths of about 10,000 people each year, which is more than the number of reported deaths for head-on and rear-end collisions combined. A side impact car crash at a speed as slow as 20 mph can still cause major injuries if the vehicle does not have features that protect the body from a side impact.
Due to the lack of standardized safety features in vehicles, types of side impact crash injuries vary widely. Occupants of the vehicle may experience head, neck, spine, back, rib, shoulder, arm, hip, leg, and even ear injuries (due to airbags and broken glass).
In most cases, the individuals who are struck from the side suffer from severe neck, head, and spinal injuries, followed by serious chest, leg, abdominal, and pelvic injuries. Individuals on the opposite side of the car tend to experience serious head and chest injuries as well. Many people who are involved in a side impact car accident also report pain in the lower back.
Overall, lower back pain is one of the chief complaints after a car accident, but an injury may occur anywhere in the body. As deep tissue or nerve injuries may take a little longer to present as symptoms, it is important to recognize the signs of delayed pain.
Delayed Pain Due to a Car Accident
Lower back pain that is caused by routine activities such as sleeping in an awkward position, lifting a heavy object, or sitting with poor posture may appear right away. However, certain injuries that occur during a car accident may present as symptoms hours, days, or even weeks later.
One of the most frequently reported complaints due to delayed pain is sciatica. This condition develops when the sciatic nerve becomes compressed, pinched, or irritated. The sciatic nerve, which is the widest and longest nerve in the body, originates in the lumbar (lower) spine and extends down the hips, buttocks, and the legs.
Sciatica-related pain that is caused by a car accident generally originates in the lower back, may be minor, moderate, or severe, and often radiates into the lower extremities. The onset of sciatica is also associated with herniated discs and annular tears that may arise due to a car accident. Therefore, it is important to meet with a healthcare professional, such as a physical therapist, after any type of car accident to identify potential sciatic nerve damage and receive proper treatment if needed.
In addition to sciatica, serious, non-fatal, and sometimes hidden injuries due to car crashes are a major contributing factor for long-term disabilities. Many people initially ignore the signs of a back injury after a car accident and assume that lower back pain will resolve on its own. However, a minor back injury that is left untreated can lead to chronic pain and increase the risk of degenerative changes in the spinal discs, vertebrae, ligaments, and muscles.
If medical attention and physical therapy are not immediately received after a car accident, it is important to request a checkup as soon as possible to ensure that delayed pain or any underlying issue is treated right away.
How to Treat Lower Back Pain After an Accident
Treatment for lower back pain or other types of injuries following a car accident depends on the type of damage that occurred. Over the counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen can help relieve minor pain, lessen swelling, and decrease inflammation. Stronger pain relievers may also be prescribed for severe pain if over-the-counter NSAIDs are not effective.
A more invasive form of pain treatment involves corticosteroid injections. The corticosteroid solution is injected into the spinal region, where it targets inflammation and pain by suppressing a hyperactive immune response to damaged soft tissue or irritated nerves. Corticosteroid injections are administered to individuals who are suffering from intense, chronic pain, as this form of treatment can offer relief pain for weeks or months.
In most cases, people who experience back aches and delayed pain that necessitates pain relievers should consider starting physical therapy to help restore mobility and support the healing process.
Physical therapy can also help individuals improve flexibility and strength in the spine, back, trunk, and muscles in the legs that provide stability for the spine. Strengthening the body’s core takes excess pressure off the spine, prevents further injury, and gives damaged tissue a better chance to heal. Physical therapists also help individuals improve their body mechanics and posture, as a car accident may limit activity or create fear of improper movement.
When physical therapy begins, the sessions should not be painful, but it is important to remember that the treatment targets the area of the body that is inflamed, irritated, or injured (e.g., lower back). As a result, the therapeutic process may cause slight discomfort. Soreness may also develop following stretching techniques, strengthening exercises, and deep tissue massage. Informing the physical therapist if the discomfort becomes too painful can help the therapist adjust the treatment plan. Furthermore, adhering to the regimen supports positive, long-term outcomes.
A car accident can cause serious damage to various structures in the body. Some injuries lead to instant pain, while other forms of tissue or nerve damage may cause hidden injuries and delayed pain. People who are struggling with any type of pain after a car accident, including lower back pain, should be aware that even minor car accidents can affect the body.
Long-term complications can also develop when treatment is delayed. Ignoring any type of pain following a car accident can negatively impact overall health. It is imperative to meet with healthcare professionals such as the highly skilled physical therapists at FYZICAL for a proper evaluation.
Injury symptoms can take days or even weeks to appear after a car accident, but our well-trained physical therapists can pinpoint hidden injuries. Don’t suffer from unexpected health problems by waiting too long to speak with a physical therapist. Please contact us today to schedule a consultation.