Low back pain is a common symptom after a car accident. You may not feel pain right away. Still, it’s important to see a doctor to check for serious injuries. Pain should resolve in a few weeks, but in some cases it can persist for years.
From 2016 to 2020, an average of about 6.4 million motor vehicle accidents occurred on U.S. roads, according to the Bureau of Transportation. Some of the most common injuries from these collisions, such as muscle strains or spinal cord injuries, often result in low back pain.
If you experience low back pain after a car accident, your specific symptoms will depend on the injury causing the pain. In some cases, a motor vehicle collision might cause the return of back pain from a previous injury or condition.
Despite the immediate trauma, it may take a few days for you to feel back pain from a car accident. It’s important to see a doctor in case there’s a serious underlying injury.
Car accidents can cause back pain in several ways. Your symptoms will depend on the type of injury you have. Here are some common injuries after a car accident:
Soft tissue injuries
According to 2023 research, soft tissue injuries such as strains and sprains are more common in the neck after a motor vehicle collision. But you can still experience these in your lower back. The same research found these injuries were more than 10 times more common than any other lumbar (lower back) injury from motor vehicle collisions.
A strain is the stretching or tearing of a muscle or tendon. Symptoms that often accompany a strain include:
- back pain
- muscle spasms
- muscle weakness
A sprain is an injury to your ligaments, which are the connective tissues that hold your joints in place. The symptoms are similar to those of strains, but you’re more likely to see bruising at the injury site.
A collision may cause your body to thrust forward while the seat belt keeps your lower body in place. This can result in a Chance fracture, also known as a flexion-distraction injury.
Symptoms of a Chance fracture include moderate to severe back pain that worsens when you move.
If the fracture affects your nerves or spinal cord, you may also experience:
- bowel or bladder problems
- numbness or tingling in the limbs
- weakness in the limbs
Bulging or herniated disk
As a result of sudden impact, a disk that sits between two vertebrae of your spine can bulge out. If it bulges out too much, this is called a herniated disk. It causes back pain by pressing against your spinal cord or the nearby nerves.
Frequent driving can put you at higher risk of a herniated disk even before an accident. Your vertebrae and disks are more vulnerable because of the vibration from the car engine and the time sitting. Sometimes, a car accident may aggravate a disk that was already bulging but wasn’t causing any symptoms.
If you have a bulging or herniated disk, you may experience:
- low back pain that gets better after a few days
- numbness or tingling in your leg or foot
- weakness in your leg or foot
In rare cases, you may experience loss of bladder control. Seek immediate medical attention if you do.
It’s best to see a doctor as soon as possible if you have back pain after a car accident. Even if you don’t have any symptoms of an injury, consider seeing a healthcare professional to examine you. Injuries may not be immediately apparent and back pain may not start for several days after a collision.
How do I know if my lower back injury is serious?
Some symptoms that accompany back pain may suggest a more serious spinal injury. Seek immediate medical care if you experience any of the following:
- pain that worsens
- changes in bowel or bladder function
You may not feel back pain immediately after a car accident, even if there’s an injury. It may take time for inflammation from a muscle strain or nerve pain from a herniated disk to develop.
A car accident is also a stressful situation that can turn on your “fight or flight” response. This causes your body to release adrenaline, which can decrease pain sensation even if you have an injury.
Treatment for low back pain depends on the type of injury. Doctors usually start with conservative measures and home treatment. If you have chronic or ongoing low back pain, they may consider other options, such as surgery.
A doctor may recommend trying home care for 2 to 3 weeks before moving on to other treatments. Home management options include:
- over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as:
- acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- naproxen (Aleve)
- ibuprofen (Advil)
- topical creams and patches with a pain relief ingredient such as lidocaine or capsaicin
- heat or ice packs to reduce inflammation
It’s best to keep moving and avoid bed rest, but avoid strenuous activities. You can gradually increase your activity as you feel better.
If OTC pain medications aren’t enough, a doctor may prescribe other medication. Options include:
- prescription pain relief
- muscle relaxants
- trigger point injections
- steroid epidural injections
- medications that affect how your body experiences pain
A doctor may recommend surgery if you experience the following:
- pain that severely impacts your quality of life
- leg weakness or numbness
- bladder and bowel function changes
- problems walking or standing
Back pain usually goes away within a
Almost one-third of people with low back pain after a car accident still experience pain after 12 months. A 2020 research review notes that people who experience low back pain after a car accident are 2.7 times more likely than others to experience low back pain in the future.
Low back pain is common after a car accident. Specific symptoms will depend on the type of injury that’s causing the pain. It’s important for a doctor to assess you after a car accident, especially since pain from a low back injury may be delayed.
You can treat most low back pain at home, but moderate or severe low back pain may require prescription medication or surgery. Low back pain after a car accident often goes away in a few weeks, but symptoms can persist for years in some people.