Auto Accidents – How an auto accident can affect you more than your car?

Auto accidents can be a big time headache and a big time pain in the neck… literally. Despite all the inconveniences of having to deal with getting your car repaired after an auto accident, your biggest concern and priority number one, should be to get your body, and not your auto’s body, repaired. Now, I understand that having a fully functioning vehicle is a necessity in today’s world, and it needs to be in working order for you to go through your daily and weekly routine, so I’m not saying that isn’t a priority. But, we often prioritize the material things first when our body should be at the top of the list. It’s easy to get caught up with insurance companies, tow trucks and mechanics, but remember, you can always get new parts for your car if they wear out, or get a new car altogether, but you cannot easily get new parts for your body, a new spine, or an entirely new body altogether.

So what happens to your body during a motor vehicle accident? Why is it so important to get checked out even if it wasn’t a major accident and you don’t feel like you sustained any injuries?

The most common injury sustained during a motor vehicle accident is a whiplash type injury. A whiplash injury is a sprain/strain injury (sprain =injury to a ligament which connects bone to bone, strain=injury to a muscle or tendon which connects the muscle to the bone) to the cervical spine or neck region. Since the head weighs 8 to 10 pounds on average, and is perched atop your relatively weak, yet flexible neck, it can move in all directions very easily. This is beneficial for everyday life, but it is a recipe for disaster when it comes to a motor vehicle accident. The mobility and awkward distribution of weight allows the head and neck to move forward then backward or backward then forward very violently, just like the mechanism of cracking of a whip, when your vehicle hits an object or you are hit by another car. This violent motion of the head and neck produces a whiplash type injury to the neck and upper back. Not all whiplash injuries are created equal, so they can vary in severity. The severity of the injury is dependent on many different factors relating both to the physics of the crash and to the individual involved in the crash. I have listed some of these factors below.

  • Speed at which the collision took place. Usually the greater the speed, the greater the impact and more severe the injury sustained. But, low impact accidents can also cause trauma to the body and spine. This is due to the fact that modern cars are designed to crumple during high speed collisions. When the car crumples, the energy created from the crash and transferred to the passengers in the car is dispersed and reduced as the car folds up. During low speed collisions, most cars do not crumple very much if at all, that allows most of the energy from the collision to be transferred to the passengers and has the potential to cause injury.
  • Were you wearing a seatbelt? Research greatly shows that seatbelts save lives by keeping passengers from being ejected from the car during an accident. But, seatbelts enhance whiplash injuries by providing a firmer pivot point at the chest, which causes a greater whiplash effect with the head and neck. Seatbelts can also cause shoulder and collar bone injuries due to the positioning of the shoulder strap. And the potential for low back injury is also very likely due to the presence of the lap belt.
  • Did you see the collision coming? If you saw the collision coming and had a chance to brace for impact, damage to the joints and ligaments can be minimized. By bracing for impact you engage your muscles to support your body. The extra support allows a lot of the impact to be absorbed by the muscle and not the ligament surrounding the joints. Since, ligamentous healing time is much longer and extensive than muscular healing time, bracing for impact will greatly minimize injury during a motor vehicle accident.
  • Were you in a neutral position, sitting up and looking forward, at the time of the collision? Less damage to the body occurs when it is in a neutral state. If your head, neck and body were straight forward and upright at the time of impact, then generally the injury is minimized. If you were turned one way or another, or leaning forward or to the side at the time of impact, you comprise your body’s structural integrity, which provides greater opportunity for injury.
  • Physical condition of the person injured prior to the accident. Generally, people in better health, more muscle tone and in better physical condition are less likely to sustain greater injury and they will heal faster after the accident. Previous injuries, or conditions like degeneration or arthritis in the neck and spine weaken those areas. Areas that have been problematic in the past will most likely be exacerbated during a motor vehicle accident and these pre-existing conditions will make for a longer healing time after the accident.

The mechanism of a whiplash injury compounded with one or all of the variables listed above can be quite devastating both short term and long term. Extreme injuries to the spine can include fractures and dislocations of the vertebrae, which can cause paralysis and death, obviously need emergency medical treatment. But what about the injuries that aren’t that extreme? Even when the spine is intact after an accident, misalignments have occurred. Misalignments can cause both hypermobile joints due to ligament injury and a hypo-mobility though out the spine, due to swelling and scar tissue formation. Once the vertebral joints are misaligned they start to wear wrong, like the tires on a car that is out of alignment. With uneven wear and improper movement, the joints then begin to degenerate or break down. As they break down, nerve irritation and muscle tension increases due to inflammation. Pinched nerves with pain traveling into the extremities and headaches are the result of this process. The only way to minimize the breakdown of the joints in the spine is to re-establish proper alignment and normal motion in those joints. Chiropractic adjustments do just that. Once the problematic vertebrae are identified and set back into place, alignment and motion of those joints are restored and the joint can then begin to heal in the proper position. Proper alignment and motion keep that joint healthy and stops or at least slows the degenerative process that would otherwise occur.

So, barring any major injuries or the need for emergency medical treatment, what should you do in the minutes, days and even weeks following a moderate or even mild motor vehicle accident?

  • Ice – Motor vehicle accidents cause injuries to the human body in many different forms. Acute or new injuries produce an exaggerated amount of inflammation or swelling in the injured area. You don’t want to eliminate the inflammatory response as it is part of the natural healing process, but you do want to control it so healthy tissues are not destroyed during this process. One of the best ways to combat swelling is to apply ice for 20 minutes to the injured area with some form of an ice pack (frozen vegetables like peas and corn work well if no commercial ice pack is available) with a thin towel between the ice pack and your skin. This process should be performed 3-4 times per day after the injury for at least the first 2-3 days and sometimes longer depending on the extent of injury.
  • Contact your automotive insurance company- Pennsylvania is a no fault state regarding medical claims resulting from motor vehicle accidents. This means that no matter whose fault the accident was, medical bills resulting from the accident will be paid by your automotive insurance company until the dollar limit on your policy is exhausted. You will be provided with a claim number which you will use when you seek medical treatment for injuries resulting from the accident.
  • Contact your Chiropractor- After a motor vehicle accident you will want to get your spine checked and realigned if needed. When you call the office, tell them about your situation. Inform them that you were involved in a motor vehicle accident. This allows the office to schedule you with the appropriate time for exams, x-rays and documentation as needed.

Car accidents have an immediate impact on our lives with the inconveniences they cause. Don’t let the most important priority, your health and well-being, both in the present and the future take a back seat to all the other chaos that comes with car repairs and insurance companies.