What is a Motor Vehicle Injury?

Motor vehicle injuries explained by Denver, Golden, Aurora, Boulder, Broomfield, Jefferson, and Littleton Colorado’s top pain doctors

Cervical Facet JointIt is estimated that one in ten people will be subject to chronic pain over the next four years. For approximately 50% of these individuals, the source of this pain will be as a result of broken bones, surgery, or motor vehicle accidents. Injuries from the latter are extremely prevalent and probable; it is estimated that 70% of people in the U.S. ages 18 to 85 years will be directly affected by a road traffic accident. 5-7% of these victims are reported to be left disabled to some degree after these incidents. Globally, it is claimed that 50 million people per year are injured in road traffic accidents.

The most common type of pain arising from a motor vehicle accident is neck pain, mostly involving the cervical facet joint (a joint between one bone or vertebra of the neck and another). The next most common form of neck pain results from damage to the protective discs between the cervical vertebrae. Some patients are diagnosed with both following a motor vehicle accident. Other motor vehicle injuries that are common after an incident include head injury, internal bleeding, damage to skin and soft tissue, ligament damage, bone fractures, and damage to the spine. Motor vehicle injury patients are also at risk from psychological disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and severe stress, which are reported as potentially detrimental to recovery from pain.

Causes of Motor Vehicle Injury

Whiplash DemonstrationWhiplash is a term most often referring to damage to cervical facet joints. It is regarded as the most common result of motor vehicle collisions. This injury occurs as a result of the forces exerted on the neck by the sudden changes in speed caused by a motor vehicle accident. Research indicates that impacts to the rear of a vehicle force lower cervical vertebrae to extend beyond their normal range of motion, while the bones of the upper neck are similarly over-flexed. It is believed that these unnatural movements of the spine lead to the cervical facet joint damage and irritation seen in whiplash. Damage to the tissues (including muscles and ligaments) surrounding the joints can also occur. Whiplash is rarely fatal, but can cause chronic pain and a significant reduction in normal movement and function. These symptoms can persist for several years after the injury.

Disc pain results from damage or degeneration in the intervertebral disc of the cervical spine. This is the second most common form of neck injury following a motor vehicle accident. Discs are composed of a soft, resilient flexible material, in order to provide shock absorption to the spine. When these properties are overcome by the forces involved in a road traffic accident, painful inflammation, compression, or degeneration of the disc(s) can occur.

Treatments for Pain Associated With Motor Vehicle Injury

Facet Joint InjectionThere are a range of treatments available for motor vehicle injury-related pain. These include treatments that can be done at home, such as physiotherapy. These are effective in addressing pain that is not significantly debilitating or severe. Many chronic pain patients are prescribed pain-relieving drugs, or analgesics. If the pain is resistant to these treatments, alternatives such as minimally-invasive surgical procedures are recommended.

Sufferers of vehicle collision trauma who begin programs of rehabilitation, i.e. physiotherapy, following their accidents are more likely to achieve recovery from pain and the retention of function and normal motion in the long term. Rehabilitation typically includes simple exercises and stretches designed to ease muscle and ligament damage.

Moderate motor vehicle injury-related pain can be treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Inflammation is often the source of pain, and NSAIDs reduce this effectively. Oral corticosteroids, e.g. cortisone, also treat pain resulting from inflammation.

If chronic motor vehicle injury-related pain is not alleviated by the pain management strategies mentioned above, other procedures may be considered to treat the patient. One of these is radiofrequency ablation, which involves the use of thermoelectric probes to disrupt the abnormal nerve function that is often the source of constant pain. Other options are injections of local anesthetics or corticosteroids into the facet joint area to “block” the transmission of pain signals to the spinal cord and brain. Examples of these procedures are medial branch blocks and facet joint injections.

Early diagnosis and treatment of motor vehicle injuries are important in satisfactory recovery from pain following an accident. This decreases the probability of exacerbating spinal damage or inflammation associated with injuries, but will also improve healing of the joints and soft tissue affected.

In terms of alternative techniques, biofeedback training is associated with improved outcomes and pain management. This treatment involves relaxation technique training that affords patients a degree of control over their own perception of pain. Research indicates acupuncture, another widespread alternative treatment for pain, is also beneficial in reducing symptoms of pain following a motor vehicle accident.


Motor vehicle injury often results in chronic pain that can persist for years after an accident. Whiplash and intervertebral disc damage are the most common injuries arising from a road traffic incident. There are many options available to treat or control the symptoms of these conditions. It is recommended that patients discuss them in detail with their physician or pain specialist. This should lead to the development of the most appropriate and effective pain management program, which will in turn increase the probability of long-term recovery and rehabilitation from a motor vehicle injury.

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