What Happens to Your Body in a Rear-End Collision?

This article was updated April 2022.

When John* pulled out from the Applebee’s on Pines Boulevard and stopped at the intersection on N. Palm Avenue, he had no idea his life was about to change for the worse.

He’d barely stopped at the traffic light when another car hit him from behind. The collision occurred so fast that afterward, he could hardly remember how it happened.

It seemed like a simple fender bender – his car only received a small dent and John was back to driving his own car after only a few days.

the physical effects of this wreck

Unfortunately, he had no idea how long he would be feeling the physical effects of this wreck.

How a Chiropractor Can Treat the Most Common Car Accident Injuries

John initially didn’t believe he’d been hurt; he didn’t even go to the hospital following the accident. But three weeks later, he awoke with a throbbing headache and a stiff neck. He tried to treat the pain with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, but his symptoms worsened.

By now, the wreck was old news. John had dealt with the other driver’s insurance company, and he’d assured his friend who worked as a personal injury lawyer that he wouldn’t need assistance from a law firm. After all, John didn’t have any medical expenses, and the other driver hadn’t seemed negligent, he’d just committed a minor traffic violation.

After a few weeks, he decided to seek out medical care by making an appointment with his general practitioner. John’s doctor put him on a prescription pain medication, which helped at first.

manage his increasingly severe neck pain

But John’s symptoms grew worse and worse, and he needed a higher dosage every few days just to manage his increasingly severe neck pain enough to go to work. John knew the cycle couldn’t continue, and so, on the advice of a friend, he made an appointment to see a Pembroke Pines chiropractor at Rush Chiropractic.

Delayed Symptoms After a Rear-End Collision

Like many other patients before him, John did not realize his symptoms were connected to the car accident he’d been in weeks earlier. It seemed so minor, and he didn’t think you could experience migraines from an accident that didn’t even involve a head injury or loss of consciousness. But even small rear-end car accidents can cause substantial physical effects and severe pain.

Rear-end collisions are among the most common types of car accidents, and they account for about 50 percent of all two-vehicle accidents. The Washington Post reported in 2015 that about 1.7 million rear-end accidents happen each year.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, in 2019, 2,346 fatal crashes involved a rear-end collision, making up about 7 percent of all fatal crashes that year. And that doesn’t include all the non-fatal crashes that resulted in injuries.

injuries from a rear-end collision can range from the catastrophic to the superficial

While injuries from a rear-end collision can range from the catastrophic to the superficial, even minor conditions can have dangerous long-term impacts. This is especially true when injuries are left untreated. Unfortunately, like John, many people don’t even realize the effects a collision has had on their body until weeks or even years later.

The Physics of a Rear-End Collision

The injuries experienced during a rear-end collision will vary depending on how fast the two cars were going. But even a minor wreck at slow speeds can cause severe damage.

Rear-end collisions are typically more dangerous for the rear-ended driver than for the rear driver who hits them. This is especially true in situations like John’s, when the front car is sitting still, and the rear vehicle is moving.

When another vehicle hits yours from behind, its momentum shifts to your car — and your body. If one car is sitting still — such as when waiting at a spotlight — or it’s going slower than the car that collided with it, that sudden motion can be traumatic.

A car going 20 miles per hour may not seem like it’s moving quickly, but imagine transferring those 20 miles per hour of momentum onto a human body very suddenly. This is essentially what happens in a collision.

Upon impact, both you and your car are jerked forward suddenly. If you are wearing a seatbelt, your body is snapped back just as quickly, causing your spine and head to crash against the seat behind you. Because you weren’t expecting the impact, you can’t brace against it. Your head snaps forward and backward in a violent motion. This can cause a cascade of injuries all up and down the spine.

And just like your head and spine are jerked forward and backward, imagine how a similar force could impact your internal organs. When your organs rapidly move forward and then backward in their cavities, they slam into rigid structures inside your body, like the ribcage, causing internal injuries. In the most severe cases, organs can rupture or tear, which creates internal bleeding (Notes: if you’re experiencing abdominal pain after a car accident, you should go to the doctor immediately to make sure your internal organs have not been damaged).

Additionally, the rear driver is much more likely to see the accident coming in time to brace themself before the collision. Many studies, including this one from the Toyota R&D Labs, show that individuals who brace themselves before a collision are less likely to experience severe injuries. Since John didn’t see the accident coming, he had no chance to prepare himself in the same way that the rear-end driver did.

How Seatbelts and Airbags Both Help and Hurt

How Seatbelts and Airbags Both Help and Hurt

Seatbelts and airbags are both important safety features that save many lives, but unfortunately, they also are not without risk.

In a rear-end car accident, especially one at higher speeds, a seatbelt could be the sole factor that keeps you from being thrown from your car. In fact, the Center for Disease Control reports that seat belts reduce serious injuries and deaths from car crashes by about 50 percent.

The problem with seatbelts is that the force they exert to keep you from flying out of your seat can also cause your head and spine to snap back more forcefully after your vehicle is hit from behind. This can often cause whiplash or another spinal injury.

Similarly, airbags deploy with tremendous force, so they can cause injuries such as broken bones, facial damage, concussions, and abdominal injuries. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that frontal airbags save thousands of lives each year. When airbags are deployed, they protect the driver and front seat passenger from hitting their heads or upper bodies on the dashboard or steering wheel, which could cause traumatic brain injury or even death.

Despite the risks attached to them, the benefits of airbags and seatbelts far outweigh the costs. Any injury you may suffer from a seatbelt or airbag is likely less severe than the ones you would experience without protection.

Keep in mind that wearing your seatbelt properly and sitting straight in your seat with your feet on the floor — even when riding as a passenger — can help protect you from seatbelt and airbag injuries in the event of a collision.

How Can a Chiropractor Help After a Rear-End Collision?

Like John, your first instinct may be to visit a general practitioner when dealing with pain after a car accident. But in many cases, GPs will just prescribe pharmaceuticals that only mask your symptoms.

Since prescription pain killers can’t address the root cause of your discomfort, it simply acts as a Band-Aid on the problem. And if your injury lingers like John’s did, you will need ever-increasing doses to manage your daily pain over time.

Fortunately, there is a second, better option. Chiropractic care treats and heals ailments without the use of drugs. And at Rush Chiropractic, we have a wide variety of treatments at our disposal, so we can work with you to diagnose the problem and develop a treatment plan that’s tailored to the types of injuries you’ve experienced.

Common Signs You Should See a Chiropractor

If you think you have been injured in a rear-end collision, it’s important to seek out treatment immediately.

Many injuries can last for years if left untreated

Many injuries can last for years if left untreated, and you never want to look back and realize you’ve been suffering for too long from something that could have been fixed with just a few chiropractic visits.

Additionally, back and neck injuries like whiplash or herniated discs can get more serious if left untreated, or they can have serious long-term effects throughout your body, as your posture or movement might change in a way that’s harmful to your hips, knees, or other joints.

This is why it’s so beneficial to work with a chiropractor. We don’t just help you find pain relief, but our treatment methods can also speed up your recovery time and strengthen the affected areas to reduce your risk of future injury.

With that in mind, here are some of the most common types of injuries people experience after a rear-end collision and an overview of some of the ways your chiropractor can treat them:

The Most Common Injuries in a Rear-End Collision

Whiplash (Whiplash Associated Disorders)

Whiplash is also known as cervical acceleration-deceleration disorder, or a flexion/extension cervical injury, because it’s caused by a sudden extension (backward motion) of the head and neck, followed by a flexion (forward motion). This violent, uncontrolled motion can cause tearing in the ligaments, tendons, or other neck muscles.

A whiplash injury is extremely common after a rear-end crash, because it can occur even in the most seemingly minor accidents. A study in the European Spine Journal found that whiplash can happen even at speed changes of less than 10 mph — such as when you’re sitting at a stoplight and a car bumps into you while moving at a slow velocity.

Whiplash can be difficult to diagnose without an X-Ray. That is partly because the onset of pain doesn’t always come immediately after the incident, like with John’s symptoms that didn’t start until 3 weeks after his accident.

Plus, the most common symptoms of whiplash are very similar to other spinal injuries. This makes it even more important to see an expert right away if you think you have whiplash, because you need to make sure you’re not suffering from a more serious condition like a.

Whiplash is most commonly associated with neck pain and stiffness, but it can also include symptoms like dizziness, fatigue, headaches, and a loss of range of motion in your neck and shoulders.

In more severe cases — sometimes called acute whiplash associated disorder — whiplash can also cause blurred vision, emotional issues, sleep disturbances, memory or concentration difficulties, and numbness in your arms and shoulders. If you experience any of these symptoms, make sure to get medical treatment from a professional as quickly as possible.

Chiropractors typically take a gentle approach to whiplash

Chiropractors typically take a gentle approach to whiplash. They may start with a combination of cold and heat therapies to reduce soreness and swelling in the muscles. Then they will proceed with careful spinal manipulation to restore the cervical spine’s proper alignment.

Additionally, at Rush Chiropractic we’re equipped to offer treatments which include:

Herniated or Slipped Discs

A herniated disc can be the source of excruciating neck and back pain and is a common injury resulting from a rear-end collision.

In between each vertebra is a soft disc designed to cushion the vertebrae and allow them to move smoothly. These spinal discs can rupture or move out of place due to traumatic events like a car accident. In some cases, herniated discs — also called slipped discs — can push against surrounding nerves, causing numbness, tingling, pain, and weakness in the arms, legs, and other parts of the body. If left untreated, a herniated disc can lead to disc degeneration in the future, so it’s important to receive a proper diagnosis and treatment.

Herniated discs are most common in the lower back (lumbar spine) but can also occur in the neck (cervical spine). Though they are a serious injury, they can usually be healed without surgical intervention.

If you’re suffering from a herniated disc, our team’s approach will vary based on the severity and location of the injury. We may use treatments including spinal manipulation, manual therapy, and physical therapy.

One other effective treatment for herniated discs is spinal decompression therapy, and this is one of our specialties at Rush Chiropractic. This therapy uses a computerized traction unit to gently straighten the spine. It increases the space between vertebrae and allows the displaced disc to slip naturally back into place. Spinal decompression therapy also increases blood flow to the injured area, allowing your injury to heal more quickly.

Muscle Strains

A herniated disc is not the only form of back injury that can result from a rear-end collision. Auto accidents can cause other forms of back pain, which can be intermittent or persistent.

Muscle strain is another common car accident injury

Muscle strain is another common car accident injury. Wrecks typically happen so quickly that the body compensates for the collision before the conscious mind knows what’s happening. Your body braces for impact, and muscles tighten. Unfortunately, this can lead to further injury and pain, since contracted muscles are more easily torn than relaxed ones.

Back pain can also arise as a complication from other injuries. A person who injures their leg in a wreck may have no initial back pain. Still, after weeks of muscle tension from compensating for the injured leg, their lower back may become inflamed.

At Pembroke Pines’ Rush Chiropractic, we offer massage therapy in addition to manual adjustments. This gentle approach relieves tension and stops the vicious cycle of compensatory injury. Your massage therapist will construct a treatment timeline that can help you feel good again without the use of pharmaceuticals.

Headaches and Migraines

Headaches can be insidious, and they’re often the result of other injuries that happen in a rear-end collision. But since they sometimes don’t begin until weeks or months after an accident, you may not make the connection to realize where your pain initially stems from.

Headaches are not all created equal; some present as a dull ache, and others as stabbing pain. You may be suffering from a trauma headache or feeling the effects of a pinched nerve or soft-tissue injury.

Muscle spasms can also lead to headaches

Muscle spasms can also lead to headaches. Whiplash causes muscles in the neck to contract in an effort to protect the spine. This abrupt, involuntary response can lead to spasms where the neck muscles continually tighten long after the accident is over.

Concussions – when your brain collides with the inner wall of your skull – are another common injury in rear-end collisions. Concussions can cause moderate to severe headaches, in addition to nausea, vomiting, and fatigue.

Depending on the cause of your headaches, gentle, precise manipulation of the cervical spine can help restore alignment, promote healing, and reduce or eliminate headaches. Other treatment options include:

  • Electrical Nerve Stimulation
  • Hot and cold therapy
  • Manual therapy
  • Massage
  • Soft-tissue therapy

Since headaches can vary greatly depending on the cause, severity, and type of pain, it’s important to go to an expert who will help you uncover the source of your headaches instead of only treating the symptoms. When you visit Rush Chiropractic, we’ll take the time to understand the exact cause of your headaches and build a treatment plan that promotes healing at the root of the problem.

Fractured Vertebrae and Compression Fractures

Many people think all spinal fractures are severe or even fatal injuries, but in some cases, they’re actually quite minor. If you’re experiencing upper or middle back pain that worsens with movement, you may have a spinal fracture.

In some cases, individuals in a rear-end collision may also experience a vertebral compression fracture, which happens when part of the spinal column collapses or compresses.

Pinched Nerves

A pinched nerve occurs when the 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 and helps prevent permanent nerve damage.

Arm and Wrist Injuries

If a driver is holding the steering wheel at the time of a rear-end collision, their arms and wrists often absorb some of the impact. This can cause injuries like sprained wrists, stress fractures in the arm, dislocated shoulders, and tendon damage. Airbags can also cause arm and wrist injuries depending on the driver’s position when the bags are deployed.

A chiropractor can treat many joint injuries with manipulation, which restores mobility to the joint and gives the injured tissues space to heal. Wrist and shoulder pain can turn into chronic pain if left untreated, so it’s especially important to make sure you see a chiropractor as soon as you’re able.

At Rush Chiropractic, we can also connect you with a physical therapist and other treatments that can help you strengthen your arms and shoulders after a traumatic injury, which will help you recover faster and become less susceptible to future injuries.

Start Your Journey to Recovery Today

At John’s initial evaluation, Dr. Rush diagnosed him with whiplash, and they began a 6-week treatment plan. His pain was gone within 2 sessions, but the remaining 4 weeks were essential to his recovery. Chiropractic care is a holistic method that works best with repeat visits. John and Dr. Rush worked to strengthen and support the muscles in his neck, not only to free him from the pain of his accident but to prevent reinjury.

today is a great day to reach out for help

If you’re dealing with rear-end collision injuries — even seemingly minor accident injury symptoms — today is a great day to reach out for help. Whether you’ve gone to other doctors who haven’t been able to resolve your problems, or you’ve never sought out treatment because your injury didn’t seem “severe” enough, Rush Chiropractic is ready and able to help all our patients in the Pembroke Pines area.

Dr. Rush has helped countless patients suffering from neck, spine, back, and deep-tissue injuries after traffic accidents, and he can help you as well. Plus, taking action now to help your body heal with proper treatment can reduce your risk of joint degeneration, osteoarthritis, and other disorders that worsen over time.

Why be in pain a minute longer than necessary? Give us a call right now at 954-432-5006 to schedule your consultation today.

*To protect the privacy of our patients, we have anonymized this article.

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