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What to Do About Back Pain After a Car Accident

Updated May 9, 2023 | By Wilson Kehoe Winingham staff

Car accidents can happen in an instant and everything may initially seem surreal. Unfortunately, the injuries resulting from car accidents can make surreal moments become a major—and unfortunate—part of reality. If your back hurts after a car accident, you may be able to recover compensation with the help of an auto accident lawyer.

How Car Accidents Cause Back Pain

Every year, it’s approximated that 1.2 million accounts of whiplash happen each year in the United States. Hospitals in the US see 869,000 cases of cervical spine injures annually. The question remains, why are there so many cases of back injuries?

Back pain from a car accident is caused by the amount of force placed upon the spine following a large impact. Since a driver’s seat has limited space, the force is confined to a smaller area, abruptly stopping the momentum. The brisk power of the force puts pressure on the back and neck.

How Long After a Car Accident Can You Experience Back Pain?

Back pain after a car accident can be instantaneous, but delayed back pain after injury can occur. Pain can last anywhere from a single week to a lifetime.

Car Accident Back Injuries

Back injury can be an ambiguous term, ranging from pinched nerves to paralysis. Back pain after a high-energy injury such as a car accident can take many forms, having severe impacts along the spine.

The spine is made up of 33 vertebrae, though only the top 24 are mobile. All of the vertebrae are categorized into five main spinal regions:

  1. Cervical:  the neck region is responsible for the joints that allow us to nod yes or shake our heads
  2. Thoracic:  the mid-back region is responsible for holding the rib cage to protect our lungs and heart
  3. Lumbar: the lower-back consists of larger vertebrae to absorb stress on our bodies
  4. Sacrum: connects our spine and hip bones (called iliac bones)
  5. Coccyx region: the fused bones at the base of our spine attach muscles and ligaments to the pelvic floor. The everyday term for coccyx is our tailbone.

We’re going to talk about the different types of back injuries experienced in a collision, and what to do about back pain after a car accident.

Car Accident Spine Injury: Acute Injuries

Common injuries experienced because of car accidents are called sudden, or acute, injuries. The injuries are a result of a strain or a tear in muscles and ligaments that support the spine.

Types of Injuries

It is true that whiplash is a common occurrence– and even reason for– back injuries after a car accident. However, there are many injuries that can happen in your back after a car accident. Again, we encourage you to see a doctor after your accident to get a proper diagnosis.

Whiplash Down The Spine

Diagnosis: Whiplash can happen in the lower back when the ligaments, muscles and tendons further down the spine are suddenly stretched beyond what they’re used to, or even capable of. Lower back whiplash is common after car crashes.

Symptoms: Numbness, muscle spasms, cramps, tingling

Severity: From manageable pain to severe

Recovery tips: Apply heat and ice, physical therapy, stretching

Recovery timeline: Whiplash is one of the most common injuries and reasons for neck and back pain after car accidents ranging from mild to chronic pain.

We get asked the question, “How long do muscle spasms last after a car accident?” Muscle spasms can last up to two weeks, though if they last longer, we encourage you to consult your doctor. Though many cases of whiplash last a few weeks, it has also been known to persist from months to even years.

Potential complications Whiplash causes lower back and middle to upper back injuries. Whiplash can also result in traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) such as diffuse axonal injuries, memory issues, and chronic pain. It’s important to see a doctor after a car accident.

Spinal Cord

Your spinal cord is a column of nerve tissue that surrounds your vertebrae. The brain and spinal cord make up your central nervous system (CNS). It’s the command center for your body. Your spinal cord is the pathway for messages your brain sends to the rest of your body. Car accidents cause over one-third of annual spinal cord injuries.

Diagnosis: Spinal cord injuries involve damage that is done to any part of the spinal cord or nerves at the base of the spine. X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs can be used for diagnoses.

Symptoms: A spinal cord injury can either be complete or incomplete.

  • Complete injury: loss of all sensory feeling and motor function below the injury.
  • Incomplete injury: some motor and/or sensory function below the injury.

These are known as quadriplegia-paralysis if both the arms and legs are affected, or paraplegia-paralysis if both legs are affected. Other symptoms include loss of bladder/bowel control, spasms, change in sexual function, difficulty breathing, and immense pain.

Severity: Spinal cord injuries are some of the most severe injuries you can sustain from a car accident because of the long-term effects of the body.

Recovery tips: Rehabilitation and aggressive physical therapy is needed right away.

Recovery timeline: Spinal cord injuries may prompt the question, “Are back injuries permanent?”

The injury may get better within six months, but if 12 months pass and symptoms continue, there is a high possibility the injury is permanent. As of right now, there is no cure for spinal cord injuries.

Potential complications: Spinal cord injury in the upper neck can cause breathing issues. A ventilator or breathing tube may be necessary to assist with normal breathing.

Discogenic Back Pain

Diagnosis: Discogenic back pain happens when a damaged disk breaks down. The pain comes directly from the disks that cushion between vertebrae. Diagnoses can be seen on an MRI or CT scan.

Symptoms: Advanced lower back pain, increased pressure in the spine

Severity: If numbness travels through the legs, the ability to walk may get increasingly difficult.

Recovery tips: Getting a back brace after the car accident may significantly help. In more chronic pain, surgery may be required.

Recovery timeline: Common recovery time ranges from 1-12 weeks, yet with surgery, recovery may be longer.

Potential complications: Studies show that 60%-80% of Iower back pain endures throughout a lifetime. More often than not, this pain is or can become chronic.

Lumbar Sprains

Diagnosis: Ligaments in the lumbar region get overstretched or torn. Lumbar sprains are nearly identical to muscle strains.

Symptoms: Inflammation, muscle spasms, cramps, contractions.

Severity: Back tears are extremely painful. The worst pain happens in the first few days.

Recovery tips: Exercise in moderation, ice and heat packs, and anti-inflammatory medicines can help relieve pain.

Recovery timeline: Usually, lumbar sprains take about four to six weeks to heal, yet could take up to months.

Potential complications: Stiff muscles, like those found tensing up during a car accident, are more prone to lumbar sprains. The lower back takes on a lot of pressure. If healing doesn’t happen, there could be additional problems or prolonged symptoms.

Lower back pain after car accidents make up for about 65% of all spine injuries in collisions. Accidents affecting the lumbar region can have significant impact on personal wellbeing and daily functioning, especially if your job requires you to lift moderate to heavy objects.

Facet Joint Injuries

Diagnosis: Facet joints are on the back of each vertebrae and connect every bone in the spine. Since the lumbar region experiences large amounts of stress, the facet joints that hold them together may wind up with disorders such as:

  • Spinal arthritis
  • Spinal osteoarthritis
  • Overexertion: seen commonly in car accidents when the joint is bent too far out of place

Symptoms: Strain, inflammation, weakness, severe pain, numbness

Severity: Severity depends on what spinal region is affected. Most cases of lumbar facet joint injuries cause pain and restricted range of motion, though middle back pain after a car accident can also result.

Recovery tips: Physical therapy, steroid injections, strengthening exercises

Recovery timeline: Facet joint injuries may be acute at first, but can develop over time to a potentially chronic state.

Potential complications: Though there are many different types of therapies, facet joint injuries have the potential to deteriorate over time.

Degenerative Spinal Disorders

Diagnosis: Degenerative spine conditions can take shape in multiple forms. Conditions involve the loss of normal structure and function in the spine over a gradual period of time. The conditions themselves include slipped or herniated disks, spinal stenosis, and osteoarthritis. Diagnosis may begin with an X-ray of the spine and progress to MRI or CT scans.

Symptoms: Limited motion, sharp or chronic pain, sensory loss, bladder/bowel issues, and sexual dysfunction

Severity: Severity varies, but surgery may be needed for more serious cases.

Recovery tips: There is specialized care for each condition. In general, exercise and physical therapy help.

Recovery timeline: Because it’s a degenerative disorder, conditions may be chronic. Yet, there are steps to take for prevention and strengthening your back to lessen the pain.

Potential complications It’s important to note that degenerative spine disorders and auto collisions can be related. If you already have a degenerative spinal disorder and sustain a back injury in a car accident, your injury and pain level can get worse, or other complications can arise because of the force on your back.

If you have a degenerative spinal disorder you were unaware of, or can potentially have one due to uncontrollable factors such as age, a car accident may speed up the process and severity of spinal disorders.

Herniated Disc

Diagnosis: Disks between vertebrae act as cushions between each bone in the spine. They allow for flexibility for the back. A herniated disk occurs when a disk moves out of place. Another possibility is disk rapture, which happens when a disk breaks open.

Symptoms: Pain, numbness, or weakness. The disk herniation can affect surrounding nerves, which can cause weakened muscles and/or sharp pain.

Severity: Severity depends on where the herniated disk is located in the spine. Sometimes, you may not even experience symptoms. Most often, though, lower back and upper back pain after a car accident can result in drastic pain.

Recovery tips: Stretch, ice, and lots of rest. Sometimes medication such as muscle relaxers or steroids can help for treatment.

Recovery timeline: Healing time takes about four to six weeks, yet depends on any pre-existing conditions. If surgery needs to happen, the timeline will extend.

Potential complications: Though rare, disk herniation can collapse the spinal canal all the way to the bottom of your spine. This can cause permanent paralysis.

Spinal Stenosis

Diagnosis: Spinal stenosis occurs when the spaces within your spine start to narrow and progressively get smaller over time. The shrinking may apply pressure to nerves in surrounding areas. Spinal stenosis can happen in the cervical (neck) area, or lumbar (lower back) region. X-rays, MRI, and CT scans can diagnose spinal stenosis.

Symptoms: Numbness, muscle weakness, tingling, problems with balance, cramping, and pain

Severity: Severity depends on where the stenosis is located on the spine. Spinal stenosis cases can range from mild pain to paralysis

Recovery tips: Treatments such as prescribed medication, physical therapy, steroid injections, and if necessary, surgery can help with stenosis. Both rest and strength building to improve balance will help you recover.

Recovery timeline: Because this is a degenerative disorder, recovery comes in the form of alleviating pain. If pain worsens, see your doctor for next steps.

Potential complications: Though spinal stenosis is not directly caused by auto collisions, the car crash can instigate already present spinal stenosis, bringing severe pain and suffering. This can lead to more damaging issues like incontinence or paralysis.

Back Pain After a Car Accident: What to Do If Someone Is Injured

It’s crucial not to move the injured person. Moving them can result in permanent paralysis.

  • Call 911
  • Make sure the person does not move or try to move on their own
  • Place towels beside their neck or hold the head in place to create stability and prevent movement

Contact a Spinal Injury Attorneys

Spinal injuries can impact your mental, emotional, physical, social, and financial wellbeing. The spine is a crucial component to our daily functioning and sustaining injuries can result in permanent damage. Here at Wilson Kehoe Winingham, we understand the severity of the pain and suffering you may be experiencing after a car accident spinal injury. If you or a loved one has been involved in a car accident which has resulted in a back injury, contact the experienced lawyers at WKW. We’re here to help you every step of the way.

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