Car accidents come with a whole lot of trauma to the body - physical and psychological. Even those that didn't suffer internal damage are still wrought with neck pain and back pain so debilitating that it can impede daily function (such as sleep, work and recreational activity) for up to 1 year post-accident. The muscle damage that results from a car accident is different from a muscle strain endured after sport or activity: it is usually long-standing, waxing and waning and difficult to control. Victims are often put through a regimen of brain-numbing and highly addictive muscle relaxers that may not serve a long-term purpose. Whiplash injuries are the most common injuries that stem from car accidents. Patients may be put in a neck or back brace that, although seemingly makes sense at first, serves to make things worse in the long-run. So after an accident, how can one ensure the best outcome?
- Report your injuries - however big or small - immediately.
Often, victims wait for a week before reporting symptoms to their physician. This is not only dangerous, but also self-limiting: a 2012 study found that the rate of recovery is faster if treatment begins within the first few weeks after a collision and that waiting to start treatment can significantly hamper recovery. Furthermore, you want to be checked as soon as possible by a physician because sometimes instability of neck joints go unnoticed, causing an array of symptoms that range from visual disturbances, to passing out (syncope).
- Go to physical therapy - and make sure you start an active, stabilization regimen.
A 2006 study compared the prognosis of patients who were treated by neck brace versus those treated with physical therapy. The study concluded that patients with neck injuries reported significantly less pain 6 weeks after having physical therapy for only 10 visits. They repeated the comparison at 6 months and found the same result, indicating that the effects were long-lasting. The physical therapy they recieved included a regimen of active exercises to rebuild musculature, calm down compensations, and improve posture.
- So what NOT to do?
Research has also measured factors that proved ineffective for treating long-term neck and low back pain. These are:
- Immobilization braces for the back and neck collars
- Passive coping style (i.e., not seeking help!)
- Depressed moods (surely from pain, but the source could also very well be from those sleep-inducing muscle relaxers!)
- Fear of movement (skipping your marathon would be prudent, but being a couch potato isn't)
What A Physical Therapist Can Do:
A PT can recommend stretches and exercises to gain back range of motion. We can also deliver manual therapy to ease muscle tension and strain while at the same time prescribe exercises to stabilize core muscles so you can regain proper posture.
- Bohman et al 2012. Prognosis with whiplash-associated disorders consulting physiotherapy: development of a predictive model for recovery. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders. 13:264.
- Vassilliou et al 2006. Physical Therapy and active exercises - an adequate treatment for prevention of late whiplash syndrome? Randomized controlled trial in 200 patients. Pain. 124(1-2): 69-76.
- Carroll et al 2009. Course and Prognostic Factors for Neck Pain in Whiplash-Associated Disorders. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics. 32(2): 97-107.