Your neck muscles can become shredded in a car accident. When you are sitting in your car at a stop light, and someone hits you from behind, even with a small tap, you can be severely injured in your neck’s discs, joints, and even muscles.
They use to think that muscles weren’t contracting fast enough during an injury to become injured in a whiplash event, but new evidence was published this year that shows that your muscles contract faster from an injury than we previously thought.
I’ve been reading studies on whiplash injures on and off in the past 20 years. I remember reading about injury biomechanics in the late 1990s where they said that a whiplash injury occurs in 100 milliseconds, but your muscles don’t start contracting until about 200 milliseconds. We thought back then that by the time your muscles started to contract, the injury was done.
We thought that when you were unaware of the impending injury, that you would be unable to contract your muscles fast enough, and you would get all ligament injury. We knew back then that when you see in the rear view mirror a car approaching too fast, and you braced for impact, you would have less ligament damage, but more muscle damage. This was a better scenario, we thought, and we still believe, because muscles heal a lot faster than ligaments, discs, and joints in the spine.
It turns out that when you are rear ended, the muscle going diagonal from your ear to your collar bone called the sternocleidomastoid muscle contracts really fast with impact. It only takes 60 milliseconds after impact from behind to make that muscle go through its peak contraction. Your head will still be whipping backwards at this time, and your head won’t stop whipping backward until about 113 milliseconds. This SCM muscle, as we abbreviate it, contracts to slow down your head movement. And as the muscle is bracing your neck, it is being pulled apart in fast-motion, causing your muscle fibers to tear apart.
After the SCM muscle is being shredded with this injury, The trapezius muscle, the “traps”, start to contract and almost immediately contract to their full force. The traps are shredded at the 90 millisecond mark, and your head is still on its way backwards to meet the head restraint in your car.
Now, as your car seat is busy pushing your low back and mid back forward, and your life starts flashing before your eyes as glass shatters and metal buckles, and as your front neck muscles are holding on for dear life, the muscles behind your neck start to then contract, and they react last. The erector spinae muscles start contracting 53 milliseconds after impact, and they contract at their peak at 149 milliseconds. This is just after your head is at its peak acceleration at 113 milliseconds.
The whole event is over in only 200 milliseconds. Yep. 0.2 seconds.
As your muscles are grabbing on, they are torn apart through negative, eccentric muscle contraction. Your muscles are trying to contract, to shorten their length, but the car accident is sending forces to make your muscles lengthen.
What this tells me, as a clinician, is this: When you are injured in a car accident, and you are hit from behind, you’re going to be suffering soft tissue injuries to the muscles and ligaments. Your muscles are the active tissue, that contract and brace you for injury. Your ligaments are passive parts, that brace and hold your spine no matter what happens to the muscles. They are both damaged.
And we know that muscles hurt a lot when injured, but fortunately they heal pretty quickly. But picture this: Your ligaments are also damaged, and they take forever to heal. Sometimes up to a year. They heal slowly and poorly because they have a limited blood supply.
All of these areas are very pain sensitive, and can interfere with your brain’s central sensitivity, which is a very unfortunate side effect of these injuries than can have lifetime consequences. Neck pain is already the 4th leading cause of disability among working adults, and this will only make matters worse.
So what should you do if you are injured? If it were me, I would do everything I can think of to facilitate the best soft tissue healing. I would immediately try to restore movement in my neck, spine, and shoulders as soon as I could. I would also start to strengthen the damaged muscles as quickly as possible in my neck, probably by performing kick-ball exercises. I would support myself with good nutrition principles, which would be as anti-inflammatory as possible. And among other things, I would consult with my own chiropractor to get third part coaching and treatment for this.