Our bodies were never meant to deal with the movement and forces involved in a car accident. Upon impact, the car that is hit absorbs energy from the crash. Some of that energy is passed onto drivers and passengers inside of the vehicle.
This energy moves the occupants in the direction of the crash. For instance, if you’re in a vehicle that’s rear-ended, momentum will move your car forward. Energy from the crash will cause you to move forward, too.
Bodies exist in a car within a finite amount of space. Eventually, the body will encounter something within the car which causes that forward motion to stop, sending the body back into the opposite direction.
This might be the seatbelt, the steering wheel, an airbag, or the side panel of the car.
This sudden movement in one direct direction and then immediately in the other is called whiplash – after the cracking of a whip.
Whiplash symptoms include pain, stiffness, headaches, muscle spasms, tightness, or knots.
Physical Structures of the Body: Understanding Neck and Lower Back Pain
Our spines are long. They cover the entirety of the back and neck, ranging from the lower back (lumbar region) to the top of the neck (cervical spine). The spine consists of individual bony vertebrae which are connected by softer cartilage called discs. Together, these provide a protective sheath for a collection of nerves that run up and down the spine through the vertebrae.
Muscles connect to the spinal structures. In a car or truck accident, the unexpected sudden movements cause these muscles to stretch suddenly – often further than the muscles are meant to. This results in muscle strain or sprain. This is the typical soft-tissue injury that we think of as whiplash.
These injuries can occur at the neck or lower back. Muscle injuries can take a surprisingly long time to heal, sometimes months. That’s because over time, blood lays down layers of collagen onto the muscle, creating a scab. Over time, the muscle fibers heal, and the collagen layers break down.
Injuries Can Occur at Lower Rates of Speed at Impact
Even a car accident that occurs at a relatively low rate of speed can cause whiplash. It is the sudden change in velocity that is instrumental in causing injuries. This change in velocity can occur at lower speeds than are required to produce property damage to the cars involved. When speeds are increased, so are the severity of injuries sustained.
For example, a driver without a seatbelt who is hit at 10 MPH will feel as though they are being hit by a mass weighing 4,074 lbs. At 40 mph, a driver with a seatbelt will feel as though they are being hit by a mass weighing 13,038 lbs.
The consequences of whiplash can be serious, no matter what the speed of your collision. It’s important to seek medical attention right away to make sure that you get the treatment you need. Once you’ve obtained medical care, don’t delay in reaching out to a personal injury lawyer for help. Those responsible for your car accident might be financially responsible for your costs and suffering, too.
Disc Injuries and Facet Joint Injuries
Vertebrae refer to the bones of the spine. Discs refer to the round pieces of cartilage that sit between and act as cushions for the vertebrae.
The spinal column passes through both the vertebrae and the discs. Disc injuries can occur with a car crash and they are quite painful. We often refer to these injuries as herniated or bulging discs.
Disc injuries occur when the softer tissue inside the disc pushes out of the harder outer layer of the disc. While these types of injuries occur in the lower back, discs in the neck can also be affected. Disc pain is intense and may resolve with continued rest, gentle stretching, and physical therapy. Otherwise, a disc injury may need surgery.
Facet joint injuries are also common in car crashes. Each vertebral unit contains a set of spiny protrusions that help support your weight and enable movement. These are joints that experience constant, repetitive motion, and can tear during an injury.
Pain and inflammation are common with these injuries. The joints are stressed and often enlarged. Pain is often felt near the joint or joints which are affected. But pain can radiate to the legs, hips, or buttocks when the affected joint is in the lumbar region. Treatment can include physical therapy, pain medication and steroidal injections, and radiofrequency ablation (RFA). RFA is an effective long-term treatment for mechanical neck and low back pain due to joint inflammation.
Understanding your injuries is important. It may not take away the pain you feel, but it can help you understand the mechanics of the injury and understand what steps are necessary for you to take toward recovery.