Auto Accidents and Chiropractic

In the ideal world, more patients would come to the clinic to get their spine checked in order to prevent problems. Much like people see dentists preventatively. They don’t wait until their teeth hurt. The reality is that we live hectic lives and when a new patient comes to the clinic, it is usually because they are complaining of pain. More often than not this isn’t the first time they have had their pain. It may be something they have been living with for some time. It’s there on some level constantly. Or, it comes and goes. In either case, the pain has gotten bad enough that the patient is motivated to make it into the clinic.

As I take their history, I try and determine how long they’ve had their pain and when it first began. Very often the pain began with that car accident they had a number of years ago. In many cases, the impact didn’t seem that bad at the time.

In fact, many people underestimate the amount of force that goes into the body even with a low impact collision. One study showed that an 8 mph rear-end collision could produce a force of 2 g on a car and 5 g force on the occupant’s neck. One g is equal to the force of gravity. Thus, 5 g is enough to cause significant injury to the ligaments, muscles, nerves and other soft tissues. Many people think of a whiplash type injury as mainly neck pain. Although this is certainly part of it, other symptoms may accompany the neck pain. These might include headaches, jaw pain, shoulder pain, arm pain or arm numbness and tingling. Low back pain is also common in auto accidents. Part of the reason these injuries occur, even at low speeds has to do with the physics of a collision.

If two cars hit at speeds less than 15 mi/hr, the bumpers won’t crumple and give way. This results in what is called an “elastic collision” in which one car bounces off the other car – with more jarring to those inside. At high speeds the bumper and the body of the car give way and that crumpling absorbs some of the force going into the occupant. This is an “inelastic collision”. Another example of an elastic collsion would be two pool table balls hitting. One bounces off the other. If those two balls were, in fact, two lumps of clay they would hit and deform in an inelastic collision. A tiny person strapped to the second pool ball would get whipped about much more than a person strapped to the second lump of clay. This is not to say high speed collisions are safer. Much more force is involved in that type of auto accident. It does demonstrate how a low speed collision can still result in significant injury and possibly chronic pain.

The thing to do immediately after a collision is to put ice on the injured areas. The body will respond to the tissue damage with inflammation. Unfortunately, this is an overreaction that can cause more tissue damage as blood rushes to the injured areas. Ice will constrict the blood vessels and decrease the inflammation. Part of the reason why people don’t feel pain immediately after an accident is due to the fact that their adrenaline is pumping and the inflammatory response hasn’t fully kicked in yet. They will tell the police officer they feel fine. Then the next morning or over the next few days their symptoms will appear and worsen.

The best thing to do is to get into the clinic as soon as possible after an accident and get evaluated. The forces of the accident will very likely have caused misaligments in the vertebrae of the spine and even other joints. With the adjustment, the chiropractor can gently realign the joints so they can heal in a more correct position and give the stretched and damaged soft tissues a chance to heal properly.

Another aspect of healing that applies to all injuries is the fact that the body heals damaged tissue with scar tissue. That’s all it can do. Unfortunately, scar tissue is less elastic than healthy tissue, is more easily reinjured, and forms with more nerve endings than healthy tissue. As a result, it is a lesser quality tissue that is more prone to pain and injury. Part of the chiropractic adjustment entails adjusting these fixations to break up the scar tissue that is forming so that the tissue that is healing will more closely resemble healthy tissue. This will give a person injured in an accident the best chance to avoid suffering from chronic pain due to that accident.

One study followed up on group of patients 7.5 years after a whiplash injury. Fully 71% of those studied still had symptoms to some degree. Fortunately, even those with chronic pain do respond well to chiropractic. But the sooner the treatment begins, the less degeneration is likely to have occurred and the more effective treatment is likely to be.

One easy thing you can do to help minimize injury if you are in an auto accident is to make sure your headrest is high enough. Most of the injury to the neck in a rear-end collision occurs when the head is whipped backwards into hyperextension. The headrest is designed to stop that backward movement. Unfortunately, it is only high enough in 1/3 of drivers. This is bad because if the headrest is too low it can result in even more injury. It will act as a fulcrum when the head goes over it into hyperextension. Be sure to set your headrest high enough that it covers that big bump at the back of your head. In most people, this is an inch or so above the level of the tops of the ears.

So, if you or someone you know has been in an auto accident, it is important to get evaluated by a chiropractor as soon as possible. On a practical level, our front office staff can answer any billing questions you might have. For example, if the accident was the fault of the other person, we can usually bill the insurance of the responsible party. Regardless, getting prompt treatment after an accident will provide the best chance for minimizing pain now and maximizing your pain free function in the future. This can mean the difference between being an achy stiff older person or one that remains healthy and active.