Physical Therapy after a Motor Vehicle Accident

woman holds her neck in pain after a car crash

Therapeutic Associates

There are few injuries that are less predictable in their nature, less consistent in their outcome and more varied in their treatment than those sustained in a car accident.

According to the CDC, in 2020 in the U.S., more than 2.1 million people went to emergency departments (ED) for motor vehicle accident injuries. (1) The most common reason for visiting the ED after a car crash is a sprain/strain injury to the neck and/or back, accounting for 23.6 percent of injuries. (2) In fact, additional studies suggest that more than 85 percent of people who are involved in a motor vehicle accident experience some level of neck pain. (3)

While significant injuries inevitably lead individuals to seek emergency medical care directly after a car accident, even those who feel moderate or mild pain or discomfort should visit their doctor or physical therapist right away. It’s also important to realize that it is not unusual for symptoms of an injury to show up days or weeks after a car accident, and it is therefore advisable to visit a physical therapist even if symptoms are not immediately present.

Furthermore, if left untreated, injuries that result from a motor vehicle collision can lead to long-term pain and dysfunction. Often, these chronic issues are due to loss of strength or mobility, which causes the body to compensate and create seemingly unrelated problems down the road.

Seeking treatment soon after an accident is the best way to avoid that outcome. Patients who start physical therapy, including motor vehicle accident care, within two weeks of the incident or onset of an injury have a faster and more complete recovery.

How can physical therapy help after a car accident?

Physical therapy can be an effective treatment option for a variety of injuries sustained in a motor vehicle collision. By performing a thorough evaluation, a PT can help you assess the severity of your situation and determine if you need to see a specialist prior to beginning physical therapy. Some symptoms, however, warrant a visit to your local ED first. (6, 7, 8, 9)

As part of their initial evaluation, your physical therapist will ask you to share a detailed account of the collision you were involved in. This is the foundation upon which your physical therapy treatment will be built. While some of the questions you’ll be asked about your experience and how you’ve felt since it happened will seem odd, each serves a purpose and as such it’s important to be open and share even the smallest details – they could matter more than you realize.

The next step in your PT journey is a physical examination and hands-on assessment, which enables your PT to understand every small detail related to your injury, pain and discomfort. If your pain levels are high during this exam, your PT will be mindful of your condition and will commit to performing assessments regularly throughout your course of care, keeping the initial evaluation basic to avoid causing you additional pain.

Now it’s your turn to ask the questions! You may experience a wide range of symptoms in addition to any musculoskeletal injuries after a car accident. It’s normal to experience headaches, difficulty focusing, ringing in your ears or even a subtle lump in your throat. Curious or confused about something you’re feeling? Ask! It is extremely important that you understand what injuries you have and that you feel comfortable participating in shared decision making – in which you, together with your provider, create a customized treatment plan based on your injuries and focused on your goals. 

Remember that all injuries are different, and everyone responds differently to both injuries and recovery – so your treatment must be individualized to you.  

physical therapy after a car crash includes assessing neck and back injury

For all their complexity, motor vehicle collisions don’t typically result in unique muscle and joint injuries. Just like a sprained ankle that happened while playing soccer, a neck injury that occurs during a car accident is the result of straining or spraining a muscle, tendon and/or ligament tissue. Additionally, similar to injuries sustained in falls, impact during a traffic collision can cause bruising to joints and cartilage, which may then become inflamed and swollen.

The overall paradigm of recovery is the same whether the injury is a result of a car crash or of any other type of accident:

  • allow the injured tissue time to rest from aggravating activities
  • stay generally active so as not to develop deconditioning
  • recover strength and mobility that may have been lost due to injury
  • return to normal life activities in a graded and controlled manner 

What does physical therapy treatment after a car accident look like?

As musculoskeletal experts, physical therapists can design a customized treatment program based on your injuries and your overall condition.

Utilizing manual therapy treatment, your physical therapist will use their hands to move, manipulate and massage your body’s muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints. This evidence-based practice can decrease your pain, help reduce swelling and inflammation, increase your mobility and expedite your return to function.

therapist assists patient with rehabilitation

Your physical therapist will also work with you to create an exercise program specific to your needs, designed to expedite your recovery. This may include moves for strengthening the muscles on the front and back of the neck, those on the shoulder blades and in the core. 

Your prescribed program may also include general exercise to address your entire body, such as walking or yoga.

It’s our goal to help you get back to your life as quickly as possible, while also ensuring long-term relief from injuries. We work closely with patients, referring providers, and auto insurance adjusters to provide the most comprehensive care, ensuring a full return-to-function for every patient.

How long does recovery after a car accident take?

It is important to realize there is no set timeframe for recovery when it comes to a motor vehicle collision. Recovery time is directly related to the severity of your injuries, but also depends on how quickly you begin physical therapy treatment and how dedicated you are to your program. It’s important to show up to your appointments and to do your home exercises as prescribed by your PT.

A significant percentage of people who sustain injuries in a car crash report that they never achieve full resolution of their pain. Others experience recurrences of their pain later in life. (4)

What is it about motor vehicle collisions that creates such a seemingly poor prognosis? For one thing, the forces involved are complex. Multiple impacts during a car crash can come from different directions and at varying speeds and are often unexpected. The vehicle can change direction during the incident. All these factors affect the type and degree of injuries sustained, which plays a part in how quickly and how completely a person recovers.

Additionally, there are many factors beyond the actual accident that can impede a person’s recovery. Complex reactions to the incident include feeling anxious or hypervigilant, withdrawn or depressed, and even fearful or angry. It’s also common after a car accident to experience poor sleep and to have difficulty concentrating or remembering things. (5) While these symptoms are all normal, they can contribute to an extended or incomplete recovery.

Lastly, an individual’s life circumstances can have a huge bearing on recovery. If someone has a highly physical job, or takes care of young children or aging parents, such that they are unable to take time to rest and avoid activities that may aggravate their injuries, recovery will be impacted. Conversely, if they have an extremely sedentary life or withdraw from normal daily physical activity, it’s likely to lead to further pain and limitation. And, of course, self-diagnosis made after reading inaccurate information from unverified sources on the internet can negatively impact recovery.

Getting back to life and all the things you love.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were more than 5 million non-fatal crashes on U.S. roads in 2020.

In general, injuries from motor vehicle collisions are wildly variable and people respond to injury and recovery very differently. There are, however, some general rules to follow. 

Discuss all your symptoms with your healthcare provider. Ask questions and make sure they are answered to where you have no confusion. Stay active to prevent deconditioning and worsening of symptoms, but don’t push through activities that cause a great deal of pain. 

It’s important to act quickly after a car accident to ensure a full and timely recovery and to avoid long-term effects on your body. Seek physical therapy treatment early, within the first two weeks after the accident if possible.

physical therapy education for back and neck injury

Through physical therapy, you can achieve pain relief and minimize the use of pain medication, avoid surgery, and accelerate your recovery. At Therapeutic Associates Physical Therapy, we are dedicated to ensuring you receive the best possible care and are able to regain your pre-accident function and mobility and can get back to the things you love as quickly as possible. 

Recovery After a Car Accident

Motor vehicle accidents can have devastating effects on the body. It is not uncommon to see everything from whiplash and fractures to muscle strains and tearing. We treat all types of injuries related to car accidents and are focused on helping you to full recovery as quickly as possible. 


  1. Transportation Safetly (September 22, 2022)
  2. Albert M, McCraig LF, (January 2015) Emergency Department Visits for Motor Vehicle Traffic Injuries: United States, 2010–2011.
  3. Hincapié C, Cassidy J, Côté P, Carroll L, Guzmán J, (2010) Whiplash injury is more than neck pain: a population-based study of pain localization after traffic injury. Environ Med. 52: 434-440  
  4. Carroll LJ, Hogg-Johnson S, van der Velde G, Haldeman S, Holm LW, Carragee EJ, Hurwitz EL, Côté P, Nordin M, Peloso PM, Guzman J, Cassidy JD, (2008) Course and Prognostic Factors for Neck Pain in the General Population. Results of the Bone and Joint Decade 2000–2010 Task Force on Neck Pain and Its Associated Disorders. Spine: Volume 33 – Issue 4S – p S75-S82  
  5. Walton DM, Elliott JM, (2017) An Integrated Model of Chronic Whiplash-Associated Disorder. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. Volume 47 Issue 7 Pages: 462-471  
  6. Wells GA, Vandemheen KL, Clement CM,Lesiuk H, De Maio VJ,Laupacis A, Schull S, McKnight RD,Verbeek R, Brison R,Cass D,Dreyer J,Eisenhauer MA, Greenberg GH, MacPhail I, Morrison L, Reardon M, Worthington J,(2001) The Canadian C-Spine Rule for Radiography in Alert and Stable Trauma Patients, JAMA. 2001;286(15):1841-1848.  
  7. Beaudry M, Spence DJ, Motor vehicle accidents: the most common cause of traumatic vertebrobasilar ischemia  (2003) Can J Neurol Sci. Nov; 30 (4) :320-5.    
  8. Finucane L, Downie A, Mercer C, Greenhalgh S, Boissonnault WG, Pool-Goudzwaard A, Beneciuk J, Leech R, Selfe J.  INTERNATIONAL FRAMEWORK FOR RED FLAGS FOR POTENTIAL SERIOUS SPINAL PATHOLOGIES  
  9. Rushton A, Carlesso LC, Flynn T, Hing WA, Kerry R, Rubinstein SM, Vogel S, (2020)  International Framework for Examination of the Cervical Region for potential of vascular pathologies of the neck prior to Orthopaedic Manual Therapy (OMT) Intervention: International IFOMPT Cervical Framework  


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