I like to think of myself as a good driver. That said, even the best drivers can get into a motor vehicle accident. I have taken my car into a ditch twice. I’ve been in a few fender-benders (though only one was my fault, I promise). Luckily, most of these accidents happened in my teenage years when my body was more “rubberized.” I could put my Subaru in a ditch, climb out the driver-side window, and wake up the next day with nothing to feel but loathing for upcoming weeks of inconvenience while Dad fixed my car.
When I was in my early 20’s, Brandon and I were at a friend’s wedding in Washington. I was heading back to the hotel late that evening while Brandon wrapped up the after-party. It was foggy and dark, and I wasn’t familiar with the area. I was driving slowly, looking for the hotel driveway, when I felt a jolt from behind. I had been rear-ended by a police car. He had been trying to read my license plate and didn’t notice when I slowed down for an upcoming red light.
It was a collision, but we couldn’t have been moving more than 20 miles per hour. At the time, I didn’t have any pain anywhere in my body. I went to the hotel and went to bed. To my great surprise, the next morning, I couldn’t lift my head. I had to put my hand behind my head for support while I sat up. On the drive home, whenever the car accelerated or slowed down, I had to use the headrest or my hand to keep my head in place. It was painful and kind of scary. It was whiplash.
Until that incident, I was under the impression that whiplash only happened in violent collisions. I was wrong.
Unsafe at Any Speed
Whiplash, and other types of spinal and muscular injuries common in motor vehicle accidents, can happen at any velocity. Often those injuries will not be noticeable until one or more days after the accident. Any adrenaline in your system has dissipated and lactic acid has had a chance to build up in your muscles and blood.
A Bummer About Aging
As we age, the actual muscle tissue in our bodies changes composition. It’s replaced by less tensile muscle and tendon fibers. These “older” fibers do not respond as well to the shearing and jolting forces our bodies are subjected to when two vehicles collide, even at low speeds. And, I’m not talking about retirement age. Our tissues begin this change in our mid-twenties. They continue declining at a higher rate as we approach our 40’s. So, when you comment on how much slower your body recovers once you hit 40 years old, you’re not wrong!
The Vicious Cycle of Dysfunction and Compensation
The muscles and tendons around the neck and spine (and every other joint in your body) protect your bony structures against all the forces that are imposed on your body during daily life. Those include straight forward forces like gravity and complex forces caused by impact. They work very hard to protect your spinal cord, organs, and brain from damage. However often in the process, those same protective muscles and tendons sustain damage themselves.
Left untreated, those injuries often lead to a decrease in muscle performance and protective capability. As a result, compensation patterns begin to emerge.
Entering stage right, the Vicious Cycle that all physical therapists combat: dysfunction leads to pain, pain leads to compensation, and compensation leads to further dysfunction. It’s a cycle that continues spinning even once you convince yourself that it’s time to stop running or hiking or gardening. But the cycle can be arrested, and often reversed.
To prevent or minimize the long-term effects that a motor vehicle accident can have on your life, you should seek treatment within the first two weeks following a collision. Even if you did not require medical attention directly after the accident, go and see your primary care physician and request a referral to see a physical therapist. The earlier you identify and treat injuries and dysfunctions, the quicker they resolve.
If it’s been a while (like months or even years) you should still make an appointment to see a physical therapist. Our specialty is finding and breaking up the dysfunctions and compensations within your neuromusculoskeletal system. If you still remember a car accident and wonder if maybe that’s why you are having issues in your neck or back or shoulder, or knee, you’re probably onto something.
In my situation, I felt better after about two weeks. I didn’t seek treatment; I didn’t even see a doctor. Over the next six months, I developed frequent low-grade headaches and an inability to turn my head far enough to sleep on my stomach – something I certainly should be able to do at 25 years old. Nothing horrific, just annoying.
Luckily, by that time, I was in PT school. I was surrounded by a bunch of like-minded nerds whose favorite past time was working on each other. I was evaluated and subsequently treated by (heavily supervised) classmates. No more headaches, and at 39 years old, I still sleep on my stomach. Full discretion: I encourage my patients not to sleep on their stomachs. It’s one of those “do as I say, not as I do” situations.
Let Us Help You Get Better
If you’ve been in a motor vehicle accident recently, contact us. We will be able to help you navigate all the steps necessary to begin treatment, including helping to answer questions regarding auto or health insurance coverage and requirements.
If you were in an accident long ago and suspect you have entered into the vicious cycle of dysfunction and compensation, call our office. We love a good puzzle, and that is likely what your neuromusculoskeletal system has become. There is almost always a solution, and we’re are the specialists trained to find that “something.”
Stay safe out there!