Physical Therapy After a Motor Vehicle Accident

Unless you are at an amusement park on the bumper cars, a motor vehicle accident is never fun.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 6.7 million car accidents occurred in 2018, with nearly 1.9 million cases requiring medical attention due to injuries sustained during the accident. While cars have gotten safer over the years, leading to fewer fatalities, injuries are still common following a motor vehicle accident. Pain may be immediate or may begin a few days after the accident but, in either case, this can lead to disability and poor life quality. Often, physical therapy treatment is prescribed to help overcome these injuries and help individuals return to their normal function.

As injuries may vary and can depend on the severity of the accident, in many cases a thorough medical assessment may be required to ensure serious injury, such as internal bleeding, broken bones, or spinal injuries, is not present. Physical therapists often help with this screening process in collaboration with the physician team and are trained to refer for further advanced assessment when required. Typical injuries after a motor vehicle accident include soft tissue injuries along the spine, trauma, and/or concussions; sometimes individuals may have injuries in several areas of the body. Let’s discuss these a little more in depth.

Common Injuries After A Motor Vehicle Accident

Soft tissue injuries result when muscles and tendons are strained during the accident, usually because of whiplash. Whiplash occurs when the neck is suddenly jolted during the impact of the accident. This tends to be the most common type of injury and can lead to pain and stiffness within the neck and back. Numbness and tingling may also occur within the arms. Headaches may occur, typically at the base of the skull where the neck joins the head.

Trauma injuries include broken bones or cuts and bruises, with the chest, shoulders, and knees commonly affected. These injuries may occur if the vehicle occupant is struck by the side of the car or debris during the accident. Seatbelt and airbags can lead to bruising on the shoulder and chest when they engage during an accident. More severe accidents can lead to greater damage to the car, so trauma can vary widely between accidents.

Concussions may also occur after a motor vehicle accident and should be thoroughly assessed to ensure the safety of the person. Concussions can occur in conjunction with a whiplash injury as the brain can be jostled within the skull as the head moves through the whiplash
motion. Concussion symptoms can vary, but an individual may experience headaches, dizziness, light and/or sound sensitivity, difficulty focusing, and sleep disturbance. Treatment is focused on identifying symptoms and functional limitations associated with the concussion and working to overcome these problems. Consultation with a concussion physician or vision therapy may also be helpful.

How Physical Therapy Can Help

Despite the variety of injuries possible following a car accident, physical therapy is often beneficial and is typically one of the first lines of treatment recommended. Given that soft tissue injuries are most common, physical therapy will usually involve working to reduce muscle spasms and stiffness to improve pain and mobility in the neck and back. Stretching exercises may be prescribed to reduce stiffness with movement. Strengthening exercises may be used to help improve muscular control in affected areas and improve movement tolerance during daily activities. Modalities such as heat, ice, electrical stimulation, or ultrasound, may be suggested for pain relief, both in the clinic and at home.

Education is also an important part of recovery following a motor vehicle accident as this can help the patient return to his/her normal daily activities without worsening pain. This may involve adjusting certain activities for a temporary period and increasing awareness of posture and body mechanics throughout the day. Activity is especially important following a motor vehicle accident, as avoiding movement often makes things worse and may prolong
recovery. Additional considerations may be made in the case of concussions, as the symptoms that accompany a concussion can lead to significant difficulty with work and school activities.

Ultimately, while car accidents can lead to pain and disability, physical therapy can help overcome these issues. Hopefully you have not been in a motor vehicle accident (or at least a non-bumper car related accident!), but if you or a loved one are struggling with injuries sustained in an crash, consider giving Access Physical Therapy a call. Our personalized treatment and skilled therapists work hard to get you feeling better and on the road to recovery.