When you think of injuries incurred in a fender bender you’ll likely imagine whiplash and neck pain, maybe a bruised knee or two, but probably not low back pain.
Lumbar spine trauma is, however, a common occurrence in car accidents, especially given the rotation of the upper body that happens because of the asymmetrical seat belt set-up in most cars. If you were involved in a traffic collision and have found that your lower back is causing you pain then it may be that some damage was done that was overlooked in the immediate aftermath of your accident.
Being hit by a car from behind, even at a low speed at a junction, can cause serious trauma to all sections of the spine, not just the neck. Where underlying asymptomatic lumbar spinal stenosis exists already the likelihood of such a sudden shock to the spine leading to lower back pain is high. Many patients reporting low back pain after a traffic collision are unaware of the narrowing already present in their spine. Indeed, it is often only such acute trauma that highlights a degenerative spinal issue in its early stages, causing acute symptoms to arise now rather than in a few weeks, months or even years if no accident had taken place. Conversely, such acute spinal trauma can set off a cascade of degenerative changes in the lumbar spine that lead to spinal stenosis and chronic back pain, making it even more important to obtain effective early treatment after injury.
Lumbar Spinal Stenosis and Traffic Collisions
Spinal x-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) after a car accident may reveal existing abnormalities in the lumbar spine, such as a bulging disc, arthritis, ligament calcification or osteophyte growth. Patients may have already had a vague dull pain in the base of the spine or even the beginnings of sciatica symptoms before the accident, followed by acute, sharp and severe low back pain afterwards. Where lumbar spinal stenosis was already present it may be that the shock of the traffic collision causes significant nerve damage in the lower spine, perhaps even triggering the herniation of an intervertebral disc or the slipping of one spinal segment over another.
Symptoms of Low Back Injury from a Car Crash
Many patients developing lower back pain after a car crash find that they have problems putting weight on their left side or right side, with their passenger (or driver if they were the passenger) sometimes having the same symptoms but on the opposite side. This is because the safety belt that runs diagonally across the chest causes the body to twist and pitch forwards towards the car door when the car is hit from behind. Sudden twisting of the spine may rupture a brittle disc, fracture weakened bone (particularly if it is osteoporotic), tear ligaments or muscles in the back and cause bruising and general strain in the whole of the spine.
When to See a Doctor for Back Pain
Although car collisions can be a trigger for low back pain it is highly likely that some degenerative changes had already occurred in those over the age of fifty or so, making it very difficult to bring a case for medical costs for such symptoms. Back pain is the second most common neurological complaint in the US (headaches are the number one ailment) but, luckily, most cases are relieved in a few days or weeks. Where lower back pain persists, is severe and unresponsive to over-the-counter analgesics, is accompanied by tingling, numbness or weakness in the lower extremities and/or a loss of bowel or bladder control it is vital to get immediate medical attention.
Safe and Effective Low Back Pain Relief
Those who have recently experienced a lower back injury in a car accident should also be sure to consult a physician as general back pain relief advice can be inappropriate in cases of acute spinal trauma. For example, applying heat therapy with the idea of relaxing the back may shock the spine and hinder recovery. Anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxants are also not ideal treatments in some cases of acute trauma as they can prevent the spine from adequately protecting itself from additional shocks in the immediate aftermath of an injury. Similarly, deciding to stretch and loosen up the spine may have worked previously when lower back pain has been attributed to poor posture or sedentary lifestyle habits but it could do further damage when lower back pain is due, instead, to acute spinal stenosis originating from a car accident.
Symptoms After a Car Crash
Muscle aches, shooting or stabbing pains, loss of flexibility and mobility and difficulties standing up straight are all potential symptoms of lower back injury from a car accident. Younger people tend to bounce back quicker after car accidents whereas the existing spinal degeneration in many older people can leave chronic back pain and other symptoms as a daily reminder of the event. Getting checked out after a car crash is important and patients should be sure to report any new symptoms arising in the days and weeks after the accident as these can benefit greatly from early treatment. Whiplash and neck pain may be the most obvious injury caused by a fender bender but patients should also watch out for lower back injury in a car crash, especially if they know they already have some degree of spinal stenosis.