This article was updated November 2023.
Just because upper back pain is less common than lower back pain doesn’t mean it’s any less debilitating.
If you’re experiencing upper back pain after an accident, you shouldn’t wait to seek out medical treatment. Even if your pain seems mild now, it may worsen over time if it’s left untreated. And in some cases, unresolved upper back issues can increase your risk for serious conditions like osteoarthritis.
An experienced Pembroke Pines chiropractor like Dr. Rush can help you find relief and prevent future injuries. And whether you’re currently dealing with an injury or just want to learn how to prevent one in the future, here’s a guide to everything you need to know about treating back pain after an accident:
What Causes Thoracic Back Pain After a Car Accident?
The thoracic spine is made up of the 12 vertebrae in the upper and middle part of the back. These vertebrae connect to your ribs and play an important role in protecting your internal, vital organs, so the thoracic spine is less mobile than the neck or the lower back (lumbar spine).
The upper back also supports less of your body weight than the lower back, so if you’re experiencing upper back pain, it’s more likely to be tied to a traumatic injury like a vehicle accident or a fall than to the daily wear and tear that often impacts the other parts of the back.
Keep in mind that this pain may begin immediately after a car accident, gradually increase over time, or suddenly begin weeks after the accident.
Common Symptoms of Upper Back Pain After a Car Accident
Back pain can present in several different ways, and understanding the type of pain you’re experiencing can help a chiropractor correctly diagnose your condition. Common types of upper back pain include:
- Aches and soreness throughout the back
- Numbness, weakness, and tingling in the legs
- Radiating pain that shoots into your legs
- Sharp or stabbing pain in one specific area
- Stiffness or difficulty rotating or bending
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, they’re likely tied to an injury or a medical condition. And because many injuries have similar symptoms, it’s important to get checked over by an expert to rule out serious conditions that could be life threatening if left untreated.
Why You Should Visit a Chiropractor for Back Pain Relief from a Car Accident
If your upper back hurts after being rear-ended (or from any other type of car accident), a chiropractor has more tools at their disposal than your primary care doctor will.
Your primary care doctor might have some limited experience with back injuries, but chiropractors deal with them almost every day. And where a doctor who doesn’t specialize in the spine will typically prescribe you pain medication; a chiropractor can take a more holistic approach that includes both pain relief and long-term healing.
Medication may provide relief for a period of time, but it doesn’t address the root problem that’s causing your pain. So, in cases where your back cannot heal on its own, your pain levels will continue to increase over time, and your injury may even continue to get worse.
When you visit Rush Chiropractic and Rehab, we take the time to do a full consultation — including X-Rays when necessary — to identify the root source of your pain and develop an effective treatment plan. This treatment plan may include a variety of methods beyond just chiropractic adjustment, including strategies like:
- Electrical muscle stimulation
- Exercise and nutrition advice
- Physical therapy
- Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching
- Spinal decompression therapy
Whether you were recently in a car accident or experience lingering pain from an incident that happened months or even years ago, chiropractic care can help you heal properly and start feeling pain relief sooner.
Common Causes of Upper Back Pain from Car Accidents
The thoracic spine is complex, which is why it’s so important to get treatment from an expert. It involves a system of muscles, vertebrae, tendons, ligaments, nerves, and discs, and injury to any one of those parts can cause serious pain.
Depending on the root cause of your pain, your symptoms might include stiffness, tingling sensations, pain that radiates into other areas of the body, a sharp or stabbing pain, or an ache.
Some of the most common injuries that cause thoracic spine pain after car accidents are:
Between each vertebra in the thoracic spine lies a disc that’s filled with a soft, jelly-like center. If that disc ruptures or slips out of place, it can push on nearby nerves and cause pain, numbness, and tingling. These injuries can occur at any point along the spinal cord, and upper back herniations are typically caused by traumatic incidents like a car accident.
Herniated and bulging discs are often very painful, and when left untreated, they can also lead to other degenerative spinal conditions in the future.
Whiplash occurs when the head and neck experience a sudden extension (backward motion) followed by a flexion (forward motion). This can happen even in minor accidents at speeds as low as 5-10 miles per hour, and it’s especially common in rear-end collisions.
Whiplash symptoms don’t always present themselves immediately after the accident, so many people struggle to connect their upper back pain back to the accident that caused it.
But if you’re experiencing upper back or neck pain after being rear ended (even if the accident was months ago), there’s a strong chance you might be experiencing whiplash.
- Muscle Strains, Ligament Sprains, and Tears
When a muscle, ligament, or tendon in the back stretches or even tears, it can cause soreness, swelling, and limited range of motion. In some cases, strains and sprains can heal on their own, but in more severe cases, they may require medical care.
Because sprains, strains, and tears all have similar symptoms, it’s important to seek out medical care to determine how serious your injury is.
A strain happens when a muscle or a tendon (the tissue connecting a muscle to bone) is stretched or begins to tear. A sprain is when that stretching or tearing happens to a ligament (the tissue connecting two bones together).
Whatever the case may be, a chiropractor can diagnose your injury, help you get back to feeling good faster, and reduce your risk of future complications.
Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage that protects your bones wears down over time, causing the bones in a joint to rub against each other.
When you fracture your spine, tear a ligament, or experience another acute injury in a car accident, this can cause post-traumatic arthritis, which may develop months or even years after the initial incident.
- Pinched Nerves
A pinched nerve in the thoracic spine occurs when a nerve is compressed by surrounding tissues, and can cause pain that radiates to other parts of the body. A chiropractor can help you heal faster with a chiropractic adjustment that relieves the pressure on the nerve.
In the upper back, pinched nerves are most common around the ribcage.
Tips for Relieving Upper Back Pain After a Car Accident
While it’s always best to seek out care from a medical expert, there are certain things you can try at home to help find immediate relief from your back pain. These may include:
- Applying heat or ice to the affected area
- Avoiding lifting heavy objects as much as possible while your injury heals
- Doing slow, gentle stretches
- Taking breaks to stand and walk around for every 30 minutes of sitting
When to Get Help for Upper Back Pain After a Car Accident
Some minor back injuries can be treated with ice, over the counter anti-inflammatory medicine, and rest. But the symptoms of these injuries are often similar to those of more serious conditions, so how do you know when you should see a medical professional?
When in doubt, we always recommend getting an expert opinion. It’s better to know for sure than to risk leaving a serious injury untreated, or suffering in pain for longer than you need to.
If your pain traces back to a traumatic incident — like pain between your shoulder blades after a car accident, stiffness from a sports injury, or upper back pain after a fall — you should definitely see a professional. And if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms, get help right away:
- Intense headache
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Trouble breathing
- Trouble walking
Seek medical assistance and go to the emergency room if you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above.
Even if your pain doesn’t seem severe, it’s important to see a chiropractor if it doesn’t get better after a few days. Minor back injuries can lead to serious
Risk Factors for More Serious Back Conditions
Back pain can affect anyone after a car accident, regardless of your age, fitness, body type, or general health. However, some people are more likely than others to develop serious conditions, because of risk factors that may make it more difficult for your body to heal itself on its own.
Common risk factors for a back injury include:
- A history of intravenous drug use
- Extended periods of time spent sitting each day
- Lack of exercise
- Medical conditions like arthritis, cancer, and even depression or anxiety
- Poor diet
- Poor posture
- Obesity or being overweight
- Older age
- Regular smoking
Fortunately, a chiropractor can help you better understand these risk factors and consider lifestyle changes that may support your healing process, like exercise and dietary changes. conditions later in life if they’re left untreated. Plus, you should never suffer for longer than you need to if an injury can be quickly treated.
Frequently Asked Questions: Answering Your Top Upper Back Pain Concerns
Should I Take Pain Medication for Upper Back Pain?
While over-the-counter pain medication like Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen can help lessen your back pain, it does not address the actual cause of your pain. Think of these medications like a Band-Aid; they can serve as a valuable tool when used wisely, but you should never view them as the only option.
And because the medicine masks your symptoms, it can make it difficult for you to tell which movements or activities are irritating your injury, putting you at risk for injuring yourself even worse.
When you visit a chiropractor, we work with you to realign your body in a way that promotes natural healing. This not only relieves your discomfort in the short term, but it also encourages lasting healing throughout your body.
Will Stretches Help with Upper Back Pain?
While stretching can be a useful tool for recovering your mobility after a car accident injury, it often works best when combined with other chiropractic treatments.
Make sure to move slowly, stop if you’re experiencing pain, and visit a chiropractor if your symptoms don’t get better over time.
Should I Visit a Chiropractor or a Primary Care Doctor?
Many people will go first to a primary care doctor if they’re experiencing back pain, but you should keep in mind that these doctors are not experts in the back and spine like a chiropractor is. They’ll often prescribe pain medication before addressing the root cause of your injury, and they don’t have the same full range of tools at their disposal as chiropractors.
Consider visiting a chiropractor first, and they can then make referrals out to other medical professionals if you need additional care.
Does Upper Back Pain Go Away?
Upper back pain will sometimes go away with time and rest, but if you’ve been in a car accident, you should always seek out a medical expert instead of assuming you’ll heal on your own.
Whiplash, which is one of the most common upper back injuries from a car accident, can often start out as general soreness and stiffness, and then get worse over time. The sooner you get treatment, the better your chances will be for a full recovery. When in doubt, wait a few days (not weeks) and then visit a chiropractor who can diagnose your injuries and build you a treatment plan.
Should I Ice or Heat My Upper Back?
Icing your upper back can help reduce inflammation around an injury, especially if you notice redness or swelling. On the other hand, heating your upper back can help loosen stiff muscles and sometimes even relieve chronic pain. When in doubt, consider alternating between ice and heat and seeing what gives you the most relief.
How a Chiropractor Treats Upper Back Pain
An experienced chiropractor like Dr. Rush has access to a variety of treatment methods that can help you experience pain relief and also create an optimal environment for your body to heal itself.
When you visit Dr. Rush for upper back pain, he will first take time to diagnose the problem and develop a treatment plan based on the nature of the injury.
For a herniated disc or other joint injury, Dr. Rush may use spinal decompression therapy to gently stretch the spine. This increases the space between the vertebrae to promote faster healing and allow the discs and joints to realign naturally.
He may also use chiropractic adjustment for injuries like strains, sprains, and pinched nerves. By applying controlled force to hypomobile joints, this treatment can help restore your range of motion and help the affected areas to heal.
Some patients might also benefit from electrical muscle stimulation, a technique where we send mild electrical pulses into target areas to help loosen tight muscles and reduce pain.
Whatever chiropractic treatment is right for you, Dr. Rush can help you find pain relief and lasting results. Don’t wait to get treatment after a car accident! Give us a call now at 954-432-5006 to schedule a consultation.
Dr. Rush is a 1994 graduate of the University of Florida where he earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Exercise Sports Science and Wellness.
Dr. Rush earned his Doctor of Chiropractic Degree at Life University in 2000 where he was honored with magna cum laude. Dr. Rush was born and raised in South Florida where he returned after graduation. He currently practices in Pembroke Pines, Florida where he owns and operates Rush Chiropractic and Rehab at Pembroke Pines FL.