Lower back pain is one of the most common causes of back pain in the U.S. Approximately 80% of people in the U.S. report lower back pain at some point in their lives. When considering the causes of lower back pain, lower back pain after car accident does not immediately spring to mind. After all, whiplash and neck injuries get the most press. Back pain does not discriminate, though, and delayed back pain after car accident is very common.
Do people typically suffer from lower back pain after being rear-ended?
The lower back and neck are particularly sensitive to injury after a car accident. Your spine consists of four separate parts:
- Sacral area
- Lower back, or lumbar spine
- Thoracic spine
- Cervical spine
Looking at each of these parts can help us understand why lower back pain occurs after someone rear-ends us.
The sacral area
The sacral area is the very bottom of the spine. This area consists of the sacrum, a flat, nearly triangular shaped bone that is joined to the lumbar spine with a sacral hinge.
This hinge is the first place that brings movement into the spine. In general, the sacral area of the spine is a stable area for the hips. This area typically does not move.
The lower back, or lumbar spine
The lower back is an almost elastic part of the spine that consists of five lumbar vertebrae held together by tendons. These are cushioned by jelly-like intervertebral discs.
These vertebrae have different ranges of motion depending on the person’s anatomy, but there is a considerable amount of movement possible.
The thoracic spine
The thoracic spine consists of 12 vertebrae attached to the 12 ribs that enclose our vital organs. This middle part of the spine is solid and mostly immoveable.
It plays a critical part in protecting us when we get into car accidents. Instead of unprotected organs, ribs absorb much of the impact of the seatbelt when an accident occurs.
The cervical spine
The six bones of the cervical spine win the award for most-mentioned when it comes to car accidents.
These are the bones that allow us to swivel our heads, but they are some of the smallest, most vulnerable parts of the spine in a car accident.
The spinal mechanics of a car accident
When a person is involved in a car accident, generally that means that the car they are in stops suddenly. It does not matter why the car stops. Dramatic breaking to avoid an animal or being T-boned: the physics are the same. Once the car stops, the car’s occupants keep moving until they reach something that stops them. Increasingly, seatbelts are what stops a person’s body from moving. That’s a good thing, but it can also lead to other types of injury.
Injury occurs at the place where the person’s body stops moving. The outside of the body stops, but the organs and the spine keep moving inside the body until they, too, reach a stopping point.
All of this happens in a split second. It is this violent action that often results in injury.
The lower back and cervical spine are vulnerable to injury due to the whip-like nature of this violent snapping. While the thoracic spine and sacral area are more stable, the lower back and neck are motile and will continue to move.
In some cases, this can be beneficial in a car accident. Consider this: a plate on a shelf will shatter when it falls to the floor because it is stiff and inflexible. This is why broken ribs often occur in car accidents. The movement of the lumbar spine and cervical spine may actually be protective of worse injuries.
Still, lower back pain after car accident is very common. In the U.S., three million people suffered injury in car accidents in 2016. It is challenging to separate how many of each injury occurred, but you can assume that, based on reported back pain statistics and the physics of a car crash, many of the injuries were related to lower back pain after car accident. Some estimates place the incidence of lower back pain in rear-impact car accidents at 50% and side impact car accidents at 75%.
What are the side effects after a car accident?
The side effects of a car accident can be wide-ranging and include physical, mental, and emotional challenges. These can include:
- Back pain
- Neck or shoulder pain
- Numbness in extremities
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Abdominal pain or swelling
Headaches are a common side effect of car accident. Just as with the spine moving in the body until it reaches an immoveable force, so, too, does the brain travel in the skull until it meets the skull itself. This can cause mild or severe concussion (essentially a bruised brain).
Headache is also a common sign of whiplash (discussed below) and may also be a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Neck or shoulder pain
Neck and shoulder pain can occur as a result of whiplash. They can also be caused by muscular tension.
Muscular pain occurs when a person sees the accident coming and tenses their muscles involuntarily. Just like the plate on the shelf in the example above, these tense muscles are more prone to injury.
Numbness in extremities
Numbness can be a sign of a more serious injury.
Often used to diagnose whiplash, numbness (or weakness) can also indicate nerve damage in the spine.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not just confined to the battlefield. Any traumatic event or accident can cause this condition.
Some symptoms of PTSD include:
- Changes to personality
- Changes in sleeping patterns (e.g., too much, too little, or poor quality)
- Anxiety or depression (or both)
- Loss of interest in pleasurable activities
PTSD is a highly treatable but often overlooked as a side effect of car accident.
Abdominal pain and swelling
Abdominal pain and swelling is one side effect of car accident that requires immediate, emergency medical assistance.
This could be a sign of internal bleeding or severe injury to the internal organs and should not be ignored or left untreated.
What are the major causes of lower back pain after a car accident?
There are several causes of lower back pain after a car accident. These include:
- Disc injuries
- Facet joint injuries
- Spinal fracture
- Muscular injuries
This category of pain-causing conditions covers a wide range of issues. The common thread is injury to the disc itself or injury to the intervertebral disc. Lower back pain after car accident can be caused by:
- Disc herniation
- Bulging disc
Facet joint injuries
The facet joints are the bony protrusions in the spinal column that prevent over twisting or hyperextension in the spine.
Facet joint injuries occur most often in the cervical and lumbar spine, causing neck pain after car accident (or lower back pain after car accident).
Middle back pain after car accident and lower back pain after being rear-ended can both be caused by spinal fractures. Spinal fracture features pain in the lower or middle back that gets worse when a person is moved.
This cause of back pain can result in damage to the spinal cord, so it is best to immobilize the person in the accident immediately.
Muscular injuries are very common cause of lower back pain after car accident, especially if the injured person has tensed their body in anticipation of the accident.
Can you get whiplash in your lower back?
Most people consider whiplash to be confined to the cervical spine, but whiplash effects the entire spine, including the lower back.
Whiplash has four phases.
- Phase 1: Mid-back flattens against the seat and compressive force travels up the spine, pressing vertebrae together. Head is traveling backward.
- Phase 2: Torso reaches the peak of its forward movement, and the head is still moving backwards.
- Phase 3: Torso moves back into the seat, but the head begins to move forward. Application of the brake increases the force of the head’s forward movement.
- Phase 4: This is the most violent phase. The torso is completely stopped by the seatbelt but the head, neck, and upper back may continue to accelerate forward. Some of the most damaging injuries to the spine occur in this phase, as well as concussion or traumatic brain injury.
The upwards force of the accident and the movement in the lower back mean that whiplash in the lower back is possible.
As violent as whiplash sounds, a global study looking at the effectiveness of laws requiring seatbelt use found that seatbelts have decreased traffic fatalities and decreased the severity of injury.
Whiplash, although painful and serious, is better than death or traumatic brain injury. Wear your seatbelt.
Can you get delayed back pain after car accident?
In the immediate aftermath of a car accident, many accident victims report feeling fine. Even when there are no apparent immediate injuries, it is possible for serious injury to present itself in the days and weeks following an accident.
Delayed back pain after car accident can include lower back pain after being rear-ended, middle back pain after car accident, or upper back pain after car accident. Adrenaline or shock may cause people involved in car accidents to block out the pain. They may also be focused on attending to details such as collecting insurance and calling the police.
Delayed back pain after car accident should be treated as soon as it is recognized.
Back pain from car accident symptoms
When you are in a car accident, if appropriate, move your vehicle out of the roadway. This keeps you safe from any other impacts. If you are experiencing bleeding, extreme pain, or other severe injuries, request an ambulance when you notify the police.
Shock and adrenaline may cover up some car accident symptoms. In the hours and days following your car accident, keep an eye out for the following.
- Pain in the neck or any area of the back
- Pain that gets worse with movement or activity
- Spots or flashes in front of your eyes
- Difficulty raising your arms
- New pain in the abdomen, or a lump or bump near an injury
- Numbness, tingling, or crawling sensations on the skin
- Grinding sensation in joints
- Symptoms of PTSD
Although some of these symptoms may not signal a serious injury or complication, it’s important to put your mind at ease by at least giving your doctor a call. Generally, it is best to visit your doctor after a car accident just to make sure everything is okay.
Using a team approach to treating potential injuries from a car accident can also help. Including complementary alternative medical treatments such as chiropractic care, massage, and meditation can help with physical, mental, and emotional injuries.
How long does back pain last after a rear end collision or other crash?
It is difficult to predict how long back pain from a car accident will last.
There are many factors to consider, including general overall health and any other conditions that may be present before the accident. Depending on the injury, recovery times can last anywhere from several weeks to several months. The most important thing to remember is to give yourself time and space to recover. Recognize that you will feel better. Reach out to others with similar experiences and ask them for their recommendations and support.
Finally, follow the guidance and treatments offered by your medical team. It can be challenging to complete physical therapy exercises that are painful. Finding the support to do them anyway is crucial.
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