What Happens to Your Body After a Car Accident

Man in doctor's office holding his neck as if injured

There are a lot of variables in play during a car accident. The make and model of the cars involved, safety features such as seat belts and airbags, the speed the cars were going at the moment of collision – any one of these factors can make the difference between a minor interruption in your day and a serious injury.

There are over 6 million passenger car accidents on average per year in the United States. In 2020, those accidents led to 4.8 million documented injuries. Some injuries are impossible to ignore – others might seem less significant at first but can get worse or lead to complications over time.

Some of the most common injuries resulting from car accidents include:

  • Whiplash
  • Concussions
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Injured Knees
  • Herniated Discs
  • Spinal Cord Injuries

It’s important to see an orthopedic specialist quickly after an accident – they’re trained to spot hidden and time-sensitive injuries to bones, joints, tendons, and soft tissues that other doctors might miss and that patients might ignore – until they get worse.

Not only that, but in the state of Florida, victims in a car accident only have 14 days to seek treatment in order to qualify for Personal Injury Protection (PIP) insurance benefits. Don’t ignore any bruising, soreness, or strains after a car accident, because if your symptoms don’t go away, your PIP insurance won’t cover any diagnoses a doctor gives you after 2 weeks have elapsed.

In a car crash, the body absorbs kinetic energy

When you’re driving in a car, your body and the vehicle are moving at the same speed in the same direction. Newton’s First Law of Motion states that an object in motion will stay in motion until acted upon by an outside force. So in the case of a head-on collision, when your car is abruptly stopped by another object, your body continues to move forward at the same speed as the car until some other object stops it.

If you’re not wearing a seat belt, your body will rush forward and likely collide with the steering wheel and window causing traumatic injury. This is why car crashes are so deadly if you’re not wearing a seat belt. Without a seat belt, a collision going just 30 mph produces the same amount of force on a passenger as a fall from a 3-story building.

Seat belts are designed to restrain your body during the impact, so that the vehicle absorbs the force of the crash, but your body doesn’t. In fact, many vehicles today are designed with a “crumple zone” at the front of the car, deliberately designed to absorb force during an impact to minimize the amount of force transferred to the occupants. That’s why so many older cars, despite seeming more sturdily built, were actually far more dangerous.

What to expect physically after a car accident

Some injuries you sustain in a car accident – such as broken bones or bruises, cuts, and contusions – will be immediately obvious. Others are harder to detect, but have symptoms that will develop either immediately after the crash or in the days following. People are usually in shock (a sudden drop in blood pressure) immediately after an accident, so they might not notice right away exactly how they’re feeling physically. Here are some of the symptoms to look out for:

  • Back pain – Spinal injuries can have lifelong impacts on mobility and daily living, so it’s essential to seek medical attention immediately if you’re experiencing any back pain.
  • Pain or stiffness in the neck and shoulders – Associated with sprains, strains, whiplash, and herniated discs, neck and shoulder pain can take hours or days to develop after an accident.
  • Headaches and nausea – Headaches are common, but if they’re accompanied by nausea or flu-like symptoms they can indicate the presence of a concussion or other traumatic brain injury.
  • Abdominal pain – This can indicate internal bleeding or other soft tissue damage.
  • Tingling and numbness – Numbness or a “pins and needles” feeling in your extremities can be evidence of pinched nerves, herniated discs, or other injuries to the spinal cord or nervous system.
  • Memory loss or lack of concentration – These symptoms can be evidence of a concussion or other traumatic brain injury.
  • Fatigue or excessive sleepiness – These can indicate the presence of a concussion and are sometimes associated with psychological conditions that can develop after an accident, such as depression.

Impacts from a head-on collision

Head-on collisions are one of the most serious types of accidents you can experience – accounting for over 10% of all motor vehicle fatalities in 2020. These crashes occur when two vehicles hit each other head on going in opposite directions. They are some of the most forceful collisions because of the combined speed of both vehicles: if both cars are only going 25 mph, a head-on collision between the two is the equivalent of hitting a stationary object at 50 mph.

Head-on collisions are often the result of reckless or distracted driving, fatigued driving, driving while intoxicated, or improper passing over a double yellow line. In addition to the injuries described above, they can frequently result in broken bones, burns or scarring, and blunt force trauma to the body and face.

Impacts from a rear-end collision

A rear-end collision is caused when your car is struck from behind by another vehicle. This can happen when the vehicle in front decelerates suddenly, when the driver in the back is tailgating or driving aggressively in busy traffic, or when weather conditions or other mechanical failures prevent the car in the back from stopping in time.

Rear-end collisions often cause head, neck, and shoulder injuries such as whiplash because your body is thrust forward by the collision then yanked back by the seat belt. After a rear end collision, you should be on the lookout for the following symptoms:

  • Neck and shoulder pain
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Memory loss, drowsiness, or loss of consciousness
  • Back pain

Impacts from a side collision

Sometimes called “T-bone collisions” or “right angle collisions,” these accidents occur when one car hits another from the side of the vehicle, rather than head-on or from behind. They usually happen when a driver runs or fails to stop in time for a stop sign or red light, when a car is turning improperly at an intersection, or when two cars collide in a parking lot as one vehicle is pulling out of a space and the other is driving by.

Depending on where the crash occurs and where the vehicle occupants are sitting, side collisions can be some of the most likely to result in broken bones. Some vehicles come equipped with side airbags – intended to reduce the force of a possible impact. Unlike front-on or rear collision, cars have less structure protecting passengers and drivers from side collisions, leaving bodies more vulnerable to blunt force trauma when the car is struck from the side.

What to expect psychologically

Car accidents aren’t just traumatic for the body – they’re traumatic for the mind. After the initial shock of an accident, it’s common for people to experience many possible lingering symptoms of psychological distress. These can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Fearfulness about driving
  • Recurring nightmares
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Depression

It’s important to seek counseling or other professional help for psychological problems resulting from an accident in order to make sure they don’t get in the way of your ability to continue leading your life normally after an accident.

How to prevent long-term injuries after a car accident

No matter what, car accidents are always shocking. There are so many things to think about immediately after an accident, that people often put off thinking about their own health.

Don’t fall prey to that mistake. You should see an orthopedic doctor immediately after a car accident to make sure you don’t have any hidden injuries that will worsen with time. In fact, because the injuries suffered in a car crash are often time-sensitive and difficult to detect, many primary care physicians will immediately refer their patients to an orthopedic specialist after a car accident.

The expert physicians at Alexander Orthopaedic Associates specialize in addressing injuries to bones, joints, tendons, and soft tissues with a range of treatments: everything from over-the-counter drugs and targeted exercises to physical therapy, epidural steroid injections, and outpatient surgery. Our orthopedic specialists draw on their years of expertise and the latest in medical technology to make sure you receive the proper diagnosis and the care you need to hasten your recovery and prevent your injuries from getting worse. Schedule an appointment today!