What to Expect Physically After a Car AccidentBy Stewart J. Guss on February 24th, 2020
Want to hear a SCARY STATISTIC? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates more than 2,000,000 people get injured in car accidents across the nation EVERY YEAR. That is a lot of hurting people.
Of course, injuries sustained in a car accident can range from minor bumps and bruises to catastrophic and fatal trauma. Many of those injuries HURT RIGHT AWAY. But some do not. In fact, I’ve represented lots of clients with injuries that don’t show a full range of symptoms until days, weeks or even months after an accident. Needless to say, those clients face some REAL AND FRUSTRATING challenges when it comes to knowing what to expect as they heal and recover.
To show you what I mean, here are some common car accident injury symptoms you might expect, potential causes for those symptoms, and how they might influence your long-term well-being (and any car accident lawsuit you might file). For more specific information about your case its always a good idea to consult an experienced car accident attorney.
Physical Symptoms Commonly Associated with Car Accidents
Car accidents are the WRONG WAY to get an adrenaline rush. That being said, in the moments after an accident, a person’s “fight or flight” response almost always kicks into high gear. That surge of adrenaline and other neurochemicals often dulls pain and impairs long-term reasoning. This is a recipe for making bad decisions about your medical condition and needs.
Even if you work in medicine, you are also human, which means you likely cannot make sound choices about your physical condition in the moments and days after a car accident. So, don’t try. Let someone who is a medical professional, and who definitely has not just been in a car crash, check you out for any of the following signs and symptoms of injury:
Shoulder and Neck Pain
It is EXTREMELY common for car accident victims to feel shoulder and neck pain in the hours and days afterward. Car accidents are the most common cause of serious neck injury, soft tissue injuries that can occur when a person’s neck flexes and extends upon impact in a car accident. While neck pain following a collision may seem like a minor ache, it can also lead to significant long-term pain conditions if not treated properly.
DO NOT SKIP SEEING A DOCTOR BY ASSUMING YOU HAVE A MINOR NECK INJURY. Neck and shoulder pain can also indicate nerve damage, fractured neck vertebrae, or bulged discs, all of which can leave you with lifelong health complications. Shoulder and neck pain might also indicate the presence of an orthopedic injury, such as damage to a joint that got wrenched or twisted during the accident.
Getting headaches is one of the most common symptoms of car accident injuries. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most ambiguous. Headaches could signal ALL SORTS OF INJURIES.
Unless you took a nasty blow to your head in an accident, you might not immediately experience headaches. When they appear, they could signal a variety of conditions:
- Soft tissue damage and muscle tension in the neck or shoulders can lead to headaches.
- Headaches can result from extreme stress, which is typical after a car accident.
- Headaches could signal a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Yes, a headache that develops after a car accident might reflect damage to your brain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define a traumatic brain injury as “a disruption in the normal function of the brain that can be caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head, or penetrating head injury.” Translated into non-medical speak: the brain gets rattled around in the skull, which causes tearing, bruising, and swelling.
HOLD ON NOW. Don’t start panicking. Before you get too frightened…
The most common TBI sustained in a car accident is “mild traumatic brain injury” (mTBI), which most of us non-doctors call a “concussion.” “Mild” brain injuries, however, can still cause headaches, fatigue, nausea, “brain fog,” and other unpleasant immediate symptoms. They can cause lifelong problems, so they’re not necessarily as “mild” as they sound. Getting one concussion also increases your risk of getting subsequent concussions. So, you should always TAKE A CONCUSSION SERIOUSLY. It’s your brain that was injured, after all.
Persistent headaches after a car accident could, however, signal a more serious, or worsening, TBI. In particular, the initial “insult” (a.k.a. injury) to the brain you sustain when you take a blow to the head could lead to bleeding and swelling inside your skull, which in turn could cause additional damage to brain tissue. In the most severe cases, this damage could cause widespread cognitive, psychological, or motor impairments, coma, and even death.
Which is why (we’ll say it again), IF YOU FEEL HEADACHE-Y AFTER A CAR ACCIDENT, GO SEE A DOCTOR RIGHT AWAY.
Like neck and shoulder pain, back pain goes hand-in-glove with car accidents. Frequently, the same straining and tension that damage the neck and shoulders also lead to stiffening and pain in the muscles and soft tissue of the back. But let me be clear: Even that kind of injury is something you should treat with care.
Back pain could also signal a more serious injury to spinal vertebrae or discs. These injuries, particularly when left untreated, can result in chronic, excruciating pain and discomfort for victims, as well as numbness and loss of muscle control, potentially leading to long-term (or even PERMANENT) disability.
As a car accident injury lawyer, I always worry about clients who experience back pain. It is not just the potential back injury itself that I lose sleep over. It is also the VERY REAL DANGER OF THE INJURY LEADING TO OPIOID ADDICTION. The sad truth is, modern pain medication is as dangerous as it is effective. So be careful, please, and GO TO A DOCTOR as soon as your back feels “off” after a car accident.
It’s pretty common to feel generalized pain in your abdomen after a car accident, especially if you were wearing a seat belt. Did you know that seat belts can cause so much damage that researchers have identified a condition known as “seat belt syndrome“? It’s what happens when the seat belt works as planned but pulls so tight on your body that it causes internal trauma and might even lead to internal bleeding.
That said, ALWAYS USE YOUR SEAT BELT! While seat belts can cause their own set of harms, these pale in comparison to the damage (or death) you’re likely to face in a collision WITHOUT one!
In summary, that abdominal pain you feel might just reflect normal aches and pains from an accident, but it might signal damage to your intestine or other vital organs. So, guess what you should do if you feel pain in your abdomen after a car accident? That’s right. GO SEE A DOCTOR RIGHT AWAY.
An upset stomach after a car crash might reflect any number of health conditions, including:
- Extreme stress or anxiety
- Seat belt syndrome
- A reaction to severe pain
- Brain injury
Like other non-specific conditions after a car accident, nausea is something you should talk to a doctor about, especially if it persists and is accompanied by pain.
When the tiny blood vessels beneath your skin, capillaries, suffer damage, you get a bruise. During a collision, many different objects might collide with your body to cause a bruise. The most common culprits are seat belts and airbags. You typically will not see the full extent of your bruises for at least a day or two. Bruising typically heals on its own, but the bruised area might be tender and sore. If you notice your bruises remain sore and the color hasn’t improved, it might indicate something more serious, such as internal bleeding or organ damage.
Swelling is another common physical symptom car accident victims might experience. Pulled muscles, sprains, and tissue damage all cause swelling in the body, which you might not fully experience until days after a car accident. Swelling can be painful and causes stiffness. In most cases, you can reduce or eliminate swelling by elevating the affected area and applying ice packs. If the swelling doesn’t subside on its own, you need to share this with your doctor to ensure it doesn’t indicate something more serious.
Sometimes, a car accident just makes you feel WEIRD. Tingling, numbness, dizziness, agitation, and other ways of feeling “off” could suggest nerve or tissue damage, or the presence of a brain or spinal cord injury. GET TO A DOCTOR RIGHT AWAY.
Blurry Vision or Dizziness
Blurry vision and/or dizzy spells ARE NOT NORMAL. Traumatic brain injuries frequently cause these symptoms, but whiplash or PTSD from the trauma of the accident might also cause physical symptoms. When these symptoms don’t go away, or they continue to get worse, you need to seek medical attention as soon as possible.
General Weakness and Lethargy
No doubt you will be sore after a car accident, but once the soreness subsides, you might still feel generally weak and lethargic. Everyone has these days, but if this persists it might also indicate a brain injury.
Abnormal Sleep Patterns
Traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress from a car accident can impact a person’s sleep patterns. Sometimes accident injury victims have trouble falling asleep, other times they sleep too much, or have trouble waking. Like other symptoms, if these patterns persist, you need to mention it to your doctor.
Coping With Car Accident Injuries
Pain management is one of the most common, and dangerous, tasks accident injury victims must face after a car accident. The WORST thing about pain is that it can come and go. It’s often subjective. And when it doesn’t go away, it affects your physical and psychological well-being. And, as I said earlier, addiction to opioids is a constant worry.
Some strategies for coping with your pain include:
- Seeing the same physician. If you don’t have a regular doctor, you should get one after a car accident. He or she will document your progress more easily as you return for follow up visits or come in because you’ve experienced one or more new symptoms. Keep in mind that your doctor might not always have the answers to your issues, but he or she can recommend you to a specialist if needed.
- Keeping an injury journal. It sounds hokey, sure, but the fact is, you cannot always remember how you were feeling each second of each day. Keep an injury journal which documents your physical and emotional feelings. You can even include pictures! When your doctor is struggling to pinpoint the exact cause of your symptoms, your journal can provide valuable information to help. Additionally, a journal provides a record of your recovery—the good, bad, and ugly—that can prove valuable in legal action down the road.
- Be open to different ways to manage pain. Cortisone shots and prescription painkillers are two common medical solutions to persistent pain after a car accident injury, but they come with serious risks. Pain is complex and each person experiences it differently. Medical management of your pain might not work for you. Maybe you’ll have better luck trying alternative pain management techniques such as psychological counseling, acupuncture, visiting a chiropractor, or meditation. A car accident lawyer can help you recover the compensation you need to pursue the options that will work best for you.
- Eat healthy and sleep well. You can help your body do the things it needs to do to heal itself by eating right and getting proper rest. Some accident injury victims self-medicate with food and other substances because they feel depressed and are in pain. Avoid falling into this trap by following a healthy diet and sleep regimen. Ask your doctor to recommend the best plan for you. Depending on your situation and the nature of your injury, low impact exercise and physical therapy might also help you work through the pain of your injury.
- Contact an attorney. Car accident injuries are expensive, and insurance only covers so much medical treatment. You do not deserve to deal with the emotional burden and financial stress of a car accident injury without help. Speaking with an experienced car accident lawyer can help you understand your legal rights to compensation.