You were in a motor vehicle accident (MVA) – now what?

After a car accident your ‘to do list’ may be long – get your car fixed, find an attorney, file a claim with your insurance agent, find a rental car to get to and from work, etc. For most, the damages to your body are less of a concern in the initial stages following an accident. Unfortunately, many do not know where and how to find treatment for their injuries. Without the guidance of someone who understands the system, it’s possible to get taken advantage of as there are extensive legal businesses built around profiting from MVAs. In this post I’ll describe some of the most common injuries sustained during MVAs, as well as give you insight into the medico-legal process and how to make sure you get the care you deserve. 

Opt into MedPay

In Colorado it is state law every insurance company provides their drivers with a minimum $5,000 Medical Payments Coverage (MedPay) policy in addition to their automobile liability policy¹. MedPay should be included on any insurance policy by default and is against state law for an insurance company to deny a customer MedPay.  The $5,000 policy provides coverage for the driver, as well as the passengers in the insured driver’s car, regardless of which party is at fault. MedPay even covers you when you’re in a car that isn’t your own. Unlike other medical insurance, MedPay never carries a deductible or co-pay in the policy and is available immediately following the accident².  Colorado MedPay covers payments related to bodily injury, sickness, or disease resulting from the ownership, maintenance, or use of the motor vehicle.  Colorado MedPay can be used to cover accident related expenses such as emergency or trauma care, ambulance rides, emergency room care, imaging services (X-rays, CT scans, or MRI’s), and conservative care treatments from chiropractors, massage therapists, and physical therapists. 

Despite being mandated by Colorado state law, some insurance companies find ways to avoid providing their customers with the required $5,000 MedPay coverage. I’ve had numerous patients tell me they unknowingly opted out of their MedPay coverage before being told what the payment meant or included. Insurance companies in Colorado are required to include MedPay by default into any new policy, however, if you’ve opted out in the past, the insurance company is not required to remind you of MedPay or to ask if you want to opt in. If you use MedPay for an accident where you were not at fault your insurance company cannot raise your premium following the accident. I highly recommend calling your insurance agent today and making sure you have not opted out of MedPay. MedPay should be of little or no extra cost to your policy, and will provide you with much needed, immediately available funds following an accident.  

Common injury patterns with MVAs

The injuries sustained in even minor MVAs can be severe. Many patients I’ve treated for a MVA report little to no pain the day of the accident, with symptoms hitting them hard the following morning. The shock involved with being in an accident is one explanation for the latency of symptoms, and oftentimes the brain is focused less on pain in the body and more on the financial and legal implications of the accident. Pain typically starts in the spine, with symptoms radiating down the extremities as the full effects of the injury are realized. I recommend waiting 2-3 days following a MVA to receive treatment. Waiting will ensure the treating physician gets the full picture of your injuries and can determine the appropriate treatment approach.  

The most common type of injury sustained during a MVA is a whiplash type injury.  Whiplash involves a sudden acceleration – deceleration force on the spine and muscles.  Cervical acceleration – deceleration injuries are very common in MVAs and the whiplash injury causes tearing of muscle and ligament fibers. The muscles damaged in a cervical acceleration – deceleration injury are typically the cervical deep neck flexors which include the longus colli, longus capitis, and also the sternocleidomastoid. These muscles are extremely important for normal biomechanical function of the cervical spine. Weakness and inhibition of these muscles due to injury can lead to instability in the cervical spine and poor healing outcomes. Exercises targeting the function of these muscles are critical following a MVA and the guidance of a trained therapist is recommended to determine which exercises will be most beneficial.  

Concussion

Concussions are another possibility after a MVA and are most often associated with a blunt force trauma to the head against the steering wheel, dash, side window, or even an airbag.  If the patient lost consciousness due to head trauma and post concussive symptoms are severe, a CT is recommended to rule out a more serious pathology such as an internal hemorrhage inside the brain. Any concussion, no matter how severe, deserves attention. Less severe cases warrant a neurologic examination by a trained therapist to assess for damage to the brain, spinal cord, or peripheral nerves. Some of the assessments used include a cranial nerve examination, ocular examination, and a high index neurologic exam that includes skin sensation, muscle testing, and deep tendon reflexes. The patient should also be taken through a verbal Sport Concussion Assessment Tool (SCAT 5) which helps determine severity of concussion and also to track treatment progress. Treatment of concussions often requires a nutritional component and an anti-inflammatory diet free of refined sugar and highly processed vegetable oils. High dose EPA/DHA from fish oil and vitamin D is also recommended to help heal brain tissue. Finally, our clinic uses a class 2 therapeutic infrared laser that can safely penetrate the skull and help to heal brain tissue via mitochondrial upregulation.  

How long will it take to get better?

Tissue healing times are different for every patient and depend on age, injury history, genetics, nutrition, and lifestyle status. The severity of the accident and associated discrepancies in physical forces placed on the body are also a factor. As a general rule, the below gives the healing times for different tissue in the body which may be injured in a MVA³: 

Muscle Strain (Grade 1): 0-2 wk

Muscle Strain (Grade 2): 4d-3mo

Muscle Strain (Grade 3): 3wk-6mo

Ligament Sprain (Grade 1): 0-3d

Ligament Sprain (Grade 2): 3wk-6mo

Ligament Sprain (Grade 3): 5wk-1yr

Bone: 5wk-3mo

Many insurance companies try to fit every client into the same recovery timeline which is not realistic. If you are still in pain and someone handling your case says you need to be finished with care, advocate for yourself and demand the care you need. 

At our clinic we use passive therapies such as acupuncture/dry needling, active release technique, therapeutic laser, cupping, and instrument assisted soft tissue manipulation among others to help you heal faster. We also use a wide variety of physical rehabilitation exercises to treat the specific deficits caused by the MVA. The focus of care after a MVA is to build strength, stability, and resilience in the cervical and lumbar spine and other body regions affected by the accident. Our goal is to make the patient stronger and more functional than they were before the accident.  

Post written by Dr. Riley Kulm, DC.  Check out his bio here

Sources and References

  1. Colorado Revised Statutes Title 10. Insurance § 10-4-636. Disclosure requirements for automobile insurance products offered–rules.
  2. Med Pay Insurance in Colorado.
  3. Potential Applications of Hyaluronans in Orthopaedics.
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