Apr 26, 2017 by spinalcare
There is no doubt that improvements in vehicle safety over the last decade alone have made the roads a much safer place to be. According to the IIHS, “The chances of dying in a crash in a late-model vehicle have fallen by more than a third in just three years” (1). Cars are now primarily designed to crumble around the passengers allowing more people to survive collisions that only a few years ago would have killed the occupants. While that is great news to those of us who drive a good deal for work or to shuttle our kids, it does little to help the many people who are involved in seemingly minor, low speed accidents and “fender benders” who feel the painful effects for months and even years after the car is back on the road.
In our office at any given time, roughly 10-15% of our patients are being treated for injuries suffered because of a motor vehicle accident (MVA). According to Forbes:
“If you got your license at age 16, the odds are quite good that you’ll experience some kind of crash by the time you’re 34, at the latest. Over the course of a typical long, driving lifetime, you should have a total of three to four accidents.” (2)
With odds like that, anyone reading this article has likely been in some sort of MVA. Most people who are involved in minor MVAs expect to go through a short course of treatment and then resume normal activities within a few weeks. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. People are often discouraged at how long and arduous a task it is to recover from even a low speed impact. This is usually a result of several factors but the most prominent reason comes down to the person’s conditioning and state of inflammation at the time of the impact. We know there are a million reasons to stay in shape and eat well, but this might be one reason you never saw coming (like that pick-up truck on 422).
Most diseases and systemic conditions -from heart disease to cancer and depression – have been recently linked to inflammation. The inflammatory process is an incredibly well orchestrated and complicated process that allows us to heal and recover. It is a topic on which multiple posts could be written but we will try to scale it down here. We categorize inflammation into two type: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is the body’s own (amazing) way of healing from injuries. It involves an expansive series of chemical reactions that tell the clean-up and repairs crews where to go and what to do. The down side of this wondrous process is uncontrolled or chronic inflammation – which has become a big problem in our modern society. Under ideal conditions, the process of acute inflammation allows us to heal from cuts, disease and impacts. After this, the process subsides and the clean-up crew goes on vacation until the next injury. Chronic inflammation in our bodies causes an ongoing, inflammatory hyper-response to combat everything from chronic stress to sugary diets (both seen as injuries to the body that evolution has not had time to fully adapt to yet). Acute Inflammation will usually lead to short term pain as the body sends its army of blood cells and chemicals to heal an area – think a painful cut or splinter that heals in 5 days. However, because of our modern lifestyles of poor diets, lack of activity and unflagging stress, most of us are walking pods of chronic inflammation. Our bodies are in an unnaturally constant state of inflammatory repair due our lifestyle habits. We just aren’t aware of it until we study it (like your docs at Spinal Care) or we suffer from the effects of it (like many of our patients at Spinal Care). Most of us don’t feel the effects of chronic inflammation on a daily basis, but our bodies are frantically working behind the scenes to keep everything functioning properly. When a person suffers a very unnatural force like that of an MVA, even in the best-case scenario, there are many microtraumas sustained at one time. The devices designed to save our lives (air bags and seat belts) will create injuries that seem benign but can cause injuries and trigger an inflammatory response. Add that injury to the already heightened inflammatory state and the result is months or years of pain. Generally, we can absorb a degree of inflammation for a time. However, once our bodies hit a tipping point triggered by an injury, illness or other stressor, we set into motion the effects of chronic inflammation that can make the pain and limitations of a minor injury linger far longer than expected. Many people who report no pain or symptoms prior to an MVA, afterward report joint pain and stiffness that just won’t seem to ease. “But I never had any back issues prior to the accident” is a refrain that rehab specialists hear all the time. The reason is that most of us are primed for a painful episode by our internal chemistry. The impact simply set the whole cascade in motion. And like trying to take back harmful words once they are said, it is far easier to prevent the cascade of inflammatory events that lead to pain, than it is to resolve it once the damage is done.
Incidentally, we see the inflammatory response triggered by other events – not just MVAs. Slips and falls, serious cuts and lacerations and even pregnancy can trigger a cascade of inflammatory responses that leads to pain and other symptoms long after the event itself is over. This is why many moms report “I just haven’t felt the same since I had the baby”. This is also why a lot of the elderly seem to go downhill fast after a fall. Unfortunately, it seems we all know someone who passed away shortly after a broken hip and complications from a fall. Chemically, it is in large part due to the heightened inflammation that was already latent in the body that was triggered by a physical stress.
The good news is that you can start protecting yourself now from that accident you will likely be in. A diet high in omega 3 fatty acids, and antioxidants are hugely anti-inflammatory. The same foods that lower your chances of heart disease and cancer also lower your state of chronic inflammation (no surprise here). Consider leafy greens, grass fed meats and colorful plant based foods your first line of defense before you get in the car. Additionally, the more muscle tone and cardiovascular fitness a person has, the more protection she will have from an impact. Start protecting yourself now. If injury or lingering pain is stopping you from moving and starting a fitness routine, call us and we will help you get started. Once the impact or accident happens, it is much more difficult to reverse the inflammatory process.