In the U.S., cars are an indispensable part of daily life, taking us to and from work, school, and entertainment. Unfortunately, hurling down the freeway at 65 miles per hour is dangerous, and millions of people sustain injuries from car accidents every year. Prompt treatment for car accident injuries is important to minimize the potential for future chronic pain conditions. When it comes to injuries from car accidents, here’s what you need to know.
How common are car accidents?
Motor vehicle accidents are frighteningly common. Nationally, more than 4.4 million people were injured in car crashes in 2019, and nearly 39,000 people in the U.S. lost their lives.
In Arizona, more than 39,000 people experienced a car accident-related injury in 2019, according to the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT). Most crashes happen during rush hour on Fridays, with October ranking as the peak month for accidents, according to ADOT.
But injuries can occur at any speed, and the most common accidents happen when cars are moving slowly. Of all road-traffic accidents, 90% occur at speeds of less than 14 mph, and it is in these that whiplash injuries can still occur. Even more startling is that injuries can occur even at speeds between six and nine mph.
Regardless of speed, research shows that car accident victims are more likely to develop chronic pain. In a study published in Arthritis Care and Research, researchers found that 43% of study subjects with chronic pain had been involved in a traumatic event, like an accident.
What are the most common types of car accident injuries?
Injuries from car accidents can range from a mild annoyance to life-threatening. These are the most common to occur after an accident.
Cuts, scrapes, bruises, and broken bones
The most obvious injuries from car accidents are those you can clearly see on your skin. Cuts, scrapes, bruises, and broken bones are very common in car accidents.
More serious injuries can occur when you are not properly restrained, and your body is thrown around the car during the collision.
Whiplash is one of the most common injuries resulting from a car accident. It’s most frequently caused by rear-end collisions. When a car hits you from behind, the force of the collision sends your body forward. Caught by your seatbelt, the rest of your body stops, but your neck continues to travel forward until the top of the spine snaps your head back into place.
This near-instantaneous action causes your neck to jolt back and forth. The cervical facet joints that connect the vertebrae are most affected, but the tendons and muscles in the neck are also involved in this type of injury from car accidents.
Symptoms of whiplash include:
Some people experience ringing in the ears or problems with memory or concentration, but this is less common. In some cases, whiplash can damage the discs in between vertebrae in the cervical spine. Patients experiencing this type of injury will likely feel pain or stiffness as well.
To diagnose whiplash, doctors typically order X-rays or more thorough tests like MRIs or CT scans that have the ability to detect soft tissue damage.
Lower back pain
Most people think of whiplash as a neck injury, but lower back pain due to whiplash is also common. Your spine is a connected chain of vertebrae. Even if the injury occurs in the cervical spine, you may have pain and tenderness in the lower back.
And even if you don’t sustain a blow to the back, sudden, jarring movements may result in discomfort. Back pain may sometimes have no clear cause other than the collision. And you can have lower back pain without whiplash, too.
Although a seatbelt can contribute to whiplash by stopping the body short, not wearing one can result in serious head injuries and trauma. Head injuries are common in car crash victims who are not properly restrained. These are almost always the result of a blow to the head upon impact (most frequently the windshield).
Traumatic brain injury may result, and the most common type of injury is a concussion.
Symptoms of a concussion include:
- Loss of consciousness immediately following impact
- Impaired memory
- Vision problems
Note that you do not have to lose consciousness to sustain a concussion. A concussion can also occur as a result of whiplash. Remember that your brain is essentially floating in your skull. When your skull stops, your brain keeps traveling forward and runs into the bones of your skull. The action of the brain hitting the skull can cause traumatic brain injury, too.
Internal bleeding and injury
Internal bleeding is an injury that has the potential to be fatal. There are a few signs of internal bleeding. You may have some of the following symptoms after your car accident.
- Bruising around your navel
- Pain in the chest or belly
- Difficulty breathing
- Swollen abdomen
- Blood in your urine or stool
- Blood in your mouth
If you experience any of the symptoms of internal bleeding, this is a medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention.
Why is car accident injury treatment so important?
Many injuries that occur during a car accident may not appear obvious. Many people “feel fine” after the accident and don’t even consider seeking medical attention.
It makes sense. Without cuts, scrapes, bruises, or broken bones, you might hesitate to head to your doctor. This is especially true if you are otherwise calm and the accident occurred at a lower speed.
But getting evaluated for injuries from car accidents is important. Whiplash and other spinal injuries may not be painful at first due to the surge of adrenaline that accompanies a collision. Internal bleeding symptoms may be subtle and mild, and it might be easy to discount them. And a serious traumatic brain injury may be masked by the activity surrounding the car accident.
The best practice is to call your doctor immediately following your car accident to schedule an examination. It may be days before symptoms appear, but it’s important to be evaluated as soon as possible. Even when you are given a clean bill of health, stay on the lookout in the days and weeks following any car accident for potential lingering effects.
Treatment for injuries from car accidents
For many people, rest is crucial after a car accident. Talk to your doctor, then take at least the rest of the day off to recuperate and relax after the trauma of an accident.
There are a variety of general treatment options that are recommended regardless of the type of injury you sustain. These include:
- Proper exercise and nutrition
- Medication management
- Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g., ibuprofen and naproxen sodium)
- Hot and cold therapy
Physical therapy is also a common treatment for injuries from car accidents. The exact regimen of physical therapy will vary depending upon the type of injury sustained. Treatment may include a combination of hands-on stretching and strengthening exercises or other techniques.
Therapists work with patients to develop a customized series of exercises to help them regain muscle strength and flexibility. Building strength is just as important as regaining flexibility, and physical therapy regimens include a mixture of exercises to achieve both those goals.
A physical therapist can guide patients through exercises and give them a set of exercises to complete on their own at home.
Chiropractic care helps the body regain optimal spinal alignment, which is often lost during traumatic incidents like car accidents. During treatment, chiropractors often use a method known as spinal manipulation or adjustment. This method involves the use of controlled force to re-align vertebrae and stop them from placing painful pressure on spinal nerves.
Spinal adjustments may help you feel better after just one treatment, although some patients need multiple treatments to achieve the desired effect.
Whiplash or whiplash-associated disorders (referred to as WAD) occur when the neck is hyperextended and exceeds its normal range of motion. The “whipping” motion of the eight-pound head at the end of the spine can be painful and cause tremendous damage.
Treatments for whiplash depend on the specific type of injury that occurs. These can include:
- Intervertebral joint injury
- Intervertebral disc injury
- Muscle strain injury
- Ligament injury
- Neurovascular injury
- Vertebral fracture
There are a variety of effective treatment options to help with whiplash injuries and the pain that results. Your treatment plan will depend entirely on your specific injury and symptoms, but may include one or more of the following.
- Active release technique® (ART)
- Cervical steroid injection
- Facet joint injection
- Spinal decompression
Some patients may also benefit from a procedure known as cervical facet radiofrequency neurotomy. This technique prevents damaged nerves in the cervical spine from sending pain signals to the brain. The outpatient procedure lasts about an hour and involves the use of heat to damage the targeted nerve. Pain relief lasts anywhere from several months to several years. One of the benefits of this technique is that it allows you to begin other treatments to heal the underlying damage in your neck.
Back pain treatments
Several types of injections are available to alleviate persistent pain that develops following car accident injuries. Injections are designed to directly target the pain-causing nerves—as opposed to pills, for example, that impact the entire body.
Three common injections that can help treat the pain of injuries from car accidents include:
Injections help to alleviate inflammation and pain. The procedure generally begins with a topical anesthetic, followed by an injection. Many people experience rapid pain relief that allows them to return to their daily life more quickly.
Since injections do involve needles and powerful medications, they’re more invasive than the other types of therapies mentioned. Because of this, they’re recommended on a case-by-case basis. They can, however, provide relief without the need for more invasive surgery.
Contact us for help after a car accident
If you are involved in a car accident at any speed, it’s crucial to seek medical attention that same day. Mild injuries may go unnoticed in the aftermath of the accident, and they may become serious in the days that follow.