Common Back Injuries From a Car Accident

Driver with hand on his back experiencing back pain after a car accident

Following a collision, it’s normal for people to feel sore in one or more parts of their body. Back pain in particular is common after a car accident. Although some back injuries resolve themselves with rest, others cause ongoing discomfort or result in an inability to perform daily activity without pain. 

Seeking immediate treatment after a car accident is essential. An orthopedic specialist can assess injuries and administer care before the pain gets too severe. Some people don’t experience intense back pain until several days later. Even if your pain does not initially seem significant, it’s possible to have sustained aggressive injuries. It’s important to keep in mind that in Florida, you only have 14 days after an accident to seek care and qualify for coverage under your PIP insurance.

If left unexamined, an undiagnosed injury can lead to chronic pain requiring longer treatment. Explore the causes and symptoms of common back injuries from a car accident while learning about potential treatment methods. 

What causes back injuries?

During a vehicle accident, Newton’s Laws of Motion come into play. As your car experiences an impact, your body is still in motion until something stops it. A seat belt, airbag, steering wheel, or windshield abruptly halt your body’s movement. In the worst scenarios, your body stops when it hits the ground.

The violent motion can sprain, fracture, or severely injure numerous body parts, especially those affecting your neck, spinal cord, and back. While injuries are often noticed in head-on, rear, and side-impact collisions, even minor incidents can impact your mobility. 

Areas of the spine and neck affected by an automobile accident

An automobile collision can affect the lumbar vertebrae (lower back), thoracic vertebrae (upper back), and cervical vertebrae (neck). Each area consists of tissues, nerves, ligaments, bones, tendons, and muscles extending from your neck to your pelvis.

With 33 vertebrae spine bones, 31 nerve roots, and 32 muscles in your neck and back, any damage can have long-lasting effects. The most common back injuries are to the lumbar spine located in the lower back. There are five vertebrae in your lumbar spine. Soft discs with a soft nucleus and rugged outer ring sit between each vertebra. 

Thoracic injuries are less common due to their rigid structure but more serious as the upper back connects to the rib and chest region. Damage to one or more of the 12 vertebrae can affect your breathing, cause nerve damage, or lead to chronic pain. 

Some injuries, such as soft tissue problems, may not show up right away. Seeking medical treatment immediately can rule out any critical issues and shorten your auto accident recovery time.

What are the symptoms of back injury after a car accident?

After a vehicle collision, it’s common to feel sore all over, making it difficult to determine if your problem is back-related. Knowing what to expect after an accident can help you decide what to do next.

Since your spine includes your neck and travels down your back, the pain can radiate to many areas. Back pain after a car accident may stem from inflammation, fractures, or compressed nerves. The symptoms can range from manageable discomfort to an inability to perform everyday tasks. 

After a car accident, you may experience: 

  • Muscle spasms: The muscle may repeatedly twitch, feel like a hard knot, and feel tender on the outside of your body. Muscle spasms can vary in pain levels from mild to debilitating.    
  • Burning pain: A searing pain may move down your back and buttocks through the back of one or both legs. It can be a mild ache that goes away quickly or a burning pain that lasts for days.  
  • Stiffness: You may not feel as flexible after a car accident as your muscles tense up to protect your body. This stiffness may subside after light stretching or continue throughout the day.  
  • Sharp pain: Changing positions, such as sitting up upon waking or standing up after sitting for a while, can cause a sharp acute pain in your back. 
  • Discomfort when walking or standing: In some cases, any physical activity is uncomfortable, and you may feel a throbbing sensation or mild pain when attempting to perform daily tasks.
  • Tingling or numbness: Since your spinal cord connects to your extremities, tense muscles may pinch nerves leading to sensations of tingling or numbness in your legs, feet, arms, or hands.

However, headaches, dizziness, or disorientation also may occur from cervical vertebrae injuries from whiplash. Facet disease may cause neck or shoulder pain. With such a range of symptoms, it’s vital to note how you feel, what activities increase your pain, and how often it occurs.

How long can back pain last after an accident?

The amount of time it takes to recover from back pain depends on the patient’s prior health and the circumstances of the accident itself. 

Mild back pain can  typically resolve within a few days or weeks. More serious pain, however, can last for months – or even years – especially if left untreated. 

Herniated disc pain typically subsides in 2-6 weeks. Pain from back strains and sprains typically goes away within 1-2 weeks, while whiplash sufferers usually feel some relief within a few days – and full recovery within three months. “Chronic” back pain is defined as pain lasting for more than three months.

7 types of common back injuries from a car accident

There are many types of common back injuries from an auto accident, with many problems resulting from whiplash. Whiplash damages the soft tissue and can cause many other severe spinal conditions. 

Typical injuries may include strains, sprains, herniated discs, and fractures. But, if you had previous problems such as spinal stenosis, a car accident may cause the issue to accelerate. 

Back injury symptoms after a car accident can vary greatly, and you may have one or more injury types. Moreover, it’s difficult to diagnose the specific cause of pain without diagnostics because similar symptoms may occur for each of the following injuries. 

1. Lumbar or thoracic vertebrae fractures

A spinal fracture is when one or more vertebrae break, crack, or are otherwise damaged. The term “broken back” refers to the injury of one of the 33 bones that protect your spinal cord and make up your backbone. 

Doctors may use the following terms to describe a back fracture: 

  • Burst Fracture: When multiple parts of the vertebrae are crushed and possibly cause bone fragments to scatter. 
  • Flexion fractures: A vertebra or vertebrae breaks, with fractures typically occurring in the middle or posterior columns.
  • Compression fracture: Cracks or small breaks in the bones resulting from too much pressure.
  • Fracture-dislocation: This combines a fracture listed above with the dislocation or movement of your vertebra or vertebrae. 

2. Back sprains and strains

With a back strain, your soft tissue stretches too much, causing damage. A strain relates to tendons in your back, which connect bones to muscles. In contrast, a back sprain damages the ligaments connecting joints to bones or bones to other bones. 

Both sprains and strains can cause annoying pain that’s difficult to eliminate. Since imaging doesn’t pick up this type of damage, it’s necessary to discuss the possibility with an experienced physician. 

3. Herniated discs

During a car accident, discs can shift and compress nerves, resulting in a herniated disc. A herniated disc is when the inner part of the spinal disc pushes out through the outer ring. 

Doctors may use the terms slipped, bulging, or ruptured to describe a herniated disc. This is a severe condition as the protruding portion rubs against nerves causing numbness, a burning sensation, or weakness that extends throughout your body. 

4. Spondylolisthesis 

Spondylolisthesis is a vertebra displaced by a stress fracture. As the vertebrae move, it can compress the spinal canal or nerves. The amount of displacement and location affect pain levels and treatment. Typically people experience weakness, pain, and numbness or find it hard to walk. 

5. Facet joint injuries 

Facet joints sit between various spine bones, and nerve roots run through the joints into different parts of your body, such as the arms or legs. Your facet joints let you bend or twist in different directions without hurting your spine. However, damaged facet joints affect your nerves, causing pain.

Problems with your facet joints may occur from thinning cartilage or previous untreated trauma to the spine. Your muscles may tighten or spasm, you may feel tenderness on the outside of your back, or experience radiating pain. 

6. Discogenic pain

Damage to your spinal discs causes discogenic pain, which is often sharp pains or shooting sensations. It may result in sciatica with pain radiating to your buttocks, feet, groin, or one or both legs

With discogenic pain, people can feel uncomfortable in many different ways. Some feel better when lying down, whereas for others laying down causes more pain. Doing anything for an extended period, such as standing or sitting, can worsen the pain. 

7. Degenerative spinal disorders

Traumatic injury to your back can result in a degenerative disc disorder in the months or years down the road. It can also speed up a health issue that you didn’t know you had before the accident. As your body ages, previous damage combined with degeneration can result in:

  • Bulging discs
  • Degenerative scoliosis
  • Spinal osteoarthritis
  • Bone spurs
  • Spondylolisthesis
  • Degenerative disc disease
  • Herniated discs
  • Sciatica
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Pinched nerves
  • Foraminal stenosis

Back pain after a car accident: What to do

After a car accident, it’s important to get checked out by a doctor. Even if you don’t head to the emergency room after an accident, you should make an appointment with an orthopedic specialist as soon as possible. Doing so helps you rule out potential problems and get the all-clear before attempting activities that could make it worse. 

For example, carrying laundry up the stairs or holding a young child could all worsen the pain after a car accident. Exacerbating the problem can lead to a longer recovery time or result in further damage. 

Your doctor may request an x-ray or MRI to see if there’s disc damage or degeneration, followed by a discography to pinpoint specific problematic discs. They can look closer at your injuries, assess your mobility limitations, and suggest potential therapies. 

Treatment for back pain after an accident

The treatment for back pain after an accident varies by the injury type, location, and severity. A back brace, gentle stretching, and rest can help symptoms from whiplash subside in some cases. However, you may need additional care or referral to a spine surgeon for back pain. Treatment may include:

  • Physical therapy
  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Corticosteroid injections
  • Spinal surgery

What can I do at home to support my back injury recovery?

It’s important to seek professional treatment after an auto accident. After your treatment, there are several ways to help recover more quickly and effectively: 

  • Decrease physical activity and exercise for 2-3 weeks to reduce inflammation and pain.
  • Avoid heavy lifting and twisting for six weeks.
  • Sleep in a curled-up sideways position with a pillow between our legs. If you sleep on your back, put a rolled towel or pillow under your knees instead.
  • Apply ice to the affected area for the first 2-3 days, then apply heat.
  • Use over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
  • Follow any other instructions given by your orthopedist or physical therapist.

What happens if a back injury goes untreated?

If a back injury goes untreated, accident victims can suffer from:

  • Prolonged nerve irritation
  • Spinal stenosis 
  • Radiculopathy
  • Nerve damage
  • Long-term damage and pain
  • Depression
  • Poor sleep

Get back on the road to recovery at Alexander Orthopaedics

Back pain after a car accident can make it difficult to emotionally and physically recover. Fortunately, our specialists at Alexander Orthopaedics can assess your injuries and design a recovery plan that’s personalized to your needs. If you’re experiencing back pain, schedule an appointment to discuss your treatment solutions with Alexander Orthopaedics.