Injured in a Collision? How Physiotherapy Can Help

  •   December 6, 2019
  •  Nancy Littke, PT

Car collisions are a common occurrence in Alberta with 133,124 collisions reported in 2016 (the last year for which data is available).1 While the severity of these crashes can vary widely, with some leading to serious, life-changing injury or death, most injuries from car collisions are considered “minor.”1 The Government of Alberta monitors statistics related to traffic collisions and have found that:

  • There are more fatal collisions in May than other months. However, December and June are the months that see the most injury and property damage collisions.
  • Friday is the most collision-prone day of the week.
  • The afternoon rush period (3-7 p.m.) accounts for the greatest proportion of collisions.
  • The Christmas Season recorded the highest number of collisions and the highest number of injuries.
  • The driver actions leading to the most injury and fatality collisions are:
    • Following too closely
    • Running off the road
    • Turning left across the path of another vehicle
  • 3.2% of drivers involved in injury collisions and 16.3% of drivers involved in fatal collisions had consumed alcohol prior to the crash.
  • Those using seatbelts had a much lower injury rate (6.8%) than those not using a seatbelt (24.1%).
  • 8.2% of people in a collision who were not using a seatbelt sustained a major injury, compared with 0.8% of people wearing a seatbelt.1

When looking at the statistics, keep in mind that an injury is generally considered “major” if it causes you to be admitted to the hospital.1 When it comes to this type of injury, a physiotherapist may work with you if you have a head injury, spinal cord injury or broken bone due to a crash, both while you are in hospital and after you go home.

The term “minor injury” is used to describe injuries that do not lead to hospital admission.1 These include sprains, muscle strains, and whiplash. The description “minor” may or may not reflect how significantly an injury affects your life and your ability to do what you want to do. If you have experienced a minor injury due to a collision, a physiotherapist can help you to get on the road to recovery.

How can physiotherapists help?

A physiotherapist can:

1. Be your first point of contact. You do not need a referral from your doctor to see your physiotherapist. Your physiotherapist is trained to assess injuries such as sprains, strains, and whiplash which are common after a collision. Your physiotherapist is also trained to watch for subtle signs of more serious injuries and to work with other health-care professionals, such as your doctor, to get you the care you need if those signs are present.
You should schedule an appointment with your physiotherapist as soon as possible following a collision. By seeing your physiotherapist early on, they can rule out serious injuries, advise you about ways to manage the early phase of your recovery, and help you to understand the insurance coverage available to you.

Your physiotherapist can also complete the paperwork necessary to help you to make an insurance claim.

2. Initiate appropriate and timely treatment. Starting treatment within 96 hours of an injury has been shown to be more effective in reducing pain and will help you to return to your previous activity level as quickly as possible.2

Physiotherapists can provide:

  • Education and reassurance about your injury. They can explain your injury and what a typical course of recovery looks like.
  • Advice on posture and positioning to help with relief of any neck, back or joint pain you may be experiencing.
  • Advice about how to stay active during your recovery. Research suggests that “acting as usual” and participating in active exercise are the most effective treatment choices for the treatment of a whiplash injury.2,4,5,6 Acting as usual means that you should return to your normal daily activities as soon as you are able to within what you can tolerate. This includes activities around the home, work activities, and your usual leisure activities.
  • Suggestions for pain-relieving treatments to use at home, such as heat or ice.
  • A treatment plan designed to promote healing and movement. This plan will be developed to meet your goals and address your injury(s). These treatments may include:
    • Active exercises to maintain flexibility, strength, balance and regular use of the injured area.
    • Manual, hands-on treatments such as soft tissue and joint mobilization.
    • Pain-relieving treatments used to manage inflammation and to make it easier for you to do your exercises and stay active.

The goal of any treatment program is to help you return to your previous activity level and usual tasks, both work- and non-work related.

3. Monitor your progress towards recovery. Part of the first physiotherapy visit is spent finding out about you, your life and the things you like to do or need to do on a regular basis. As you progress through your treatment, your physiotherapist will monitor your progress toward your goals and identify when there are gaps between your usual activities and your current abilities. This allows your physiotherapist to adjust your care plan. It also enables them to know when you need more help, and when you’re ready to manage on your own.

Often an insurance company will be involved in paying for your care. Your physiotherapist will also keep them up to date with your progress, and with any ongoing problems you are having.

What about insurance?

In 2004, the Alberta Government implemented the Diagnostic and Treatment Protocols Regulation (DTPR) to provide people hurt in a car crash with rapid access to effective, evidence-based care and to ensure that access to treatment is not limited by any system or financial barriers.2,3 The benefits available will depend on the type of injury you have.3 Minor injuries, such as sprains, strains, and whiplash are covered under the DTPR program. Major injuries, such as head injuries, spinal cord injuries, and broken bones are not covered under the DTPR, but other insurance coverage is available through your car insurance policy.3

Your physiotherapist and your insurer can both help you to understand what coverage is available to you and whether your injuries fit within what the DTPR covers. Regardless of the specific details of your situation, a physiotherapist can help you understand and navigate the process while providing the treatment you need to recover.

Click here to find a physiotherapist who can support your recovery following a car crash.


  1. Alberta Transportation Office of Traffic Safety. Alberta Traffic Collision Statistics, 2016. Available at: https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/25020446-adfb-4b57-9aaa-751d13dab72d/resource/edf10f2d-9056-4d34-8470-9378f590c80d/download/ar2016.pdf Accessed November 27, 2019.
  2. Government of Alberta: Diagnostic Treatment Protocols Regulation Interpretive Guide. Available at https://www.alberta.ca/insurance-information-health-care-practitioners.aspx#toc-1 Accessed Nov 21, 2019.
  3. Government of Alberta: Automobile collisions and insurance – what to do after a collision. Available at https://www.alberta.ca/automobile-collisions-insurance.aspx Accessed Nov 21, 2019.
  4. Pastakia, K., & Kumar, S. (2011). Acute whiplash associated disorders (WAD). Open Access Emergency Medicine: OAEM, 3, 29–32. http://doi.org/10.2147/OAEM.S17853
  5. Sterling M (2014) Physiotherapy management of whiplash-associated disorders (WAD). Journal of Physiotherapy 60: 5–12
  6. Motor Accident Authority Guidelines for the Management of Whiplash Associated Disorders. Sydney: Motor Accident Authority (NSW) (2014) https://www.sira.nsw.gov.au/resources-library/motor-accident-resources/publications/for-professionals/whiplash-resources/SIRA08104-Whiplash-Guidelines-1117-396479.pdf