What to Expect Physically After a Car Accident

Woman with neck pain after a car accident

Car accidents can affect people in different ways. That’s one of the reasons why it’s important to know what to expect and seek medical attention soon after an accident, even if you don’t feel any immediate symptoms, for your auto accident recovery.

What to expect immediately after the accident

You may not experience severe symptoms immediately after the car accident, especially because your adrenaline may be running high. If you do have a fracture, spinal injury, or head injury, you should seek urgent, emergency care.

However, if you don’t feel anything or just have some minor aches and pains, you should schedule an appointment with an orthopedic specialist, as you may still have an injury you are unaware of. Oftentimes, these injuries can surface days or weeks following your car accident.

7 symptoms to look for after a car accident

There are several symptoms that you should be on the lookout for after a car accident, including the following:

  1. Neck or shoulder pain/stiffness: Neck pain is a major symptom of whiplash, which happens often in rear-end collisions. If your head whips back and forth in an accident, it can lead to herniated discs, sprains and strains, and other spinal cord injuries. Neck pain may show up hours or days after the accident.
  2. Back pain: Similar to neck pain, back pain can present itself hours or days after an accident and be a symptom of soft tissue damage, herniated discs, whiplash, or spinal injuries. Back pain can have long-lasting impacts on mobility and daily activity, so it’s necessary to seek treatment immediately if you are experiencing any pain in the back.
  3. Abdominal pain: Stomach pain after an accident can be indicative of soft tissue damage or internal bleeding. This should also be treated immediately.
  4. Headache and nausea: While headaches are a common car accident symptom, if they are accompanied by nausea and other flu-like symptoms, they should be treated seriously as that can mean you have a concussion or some other form of brain injury.
  5. Tingling and numbness: If you’re experiencing numbness or that “pins-and-needles” feeling, that could mean you have a spinal injury or damage to the nervous system. Or, depending on the area of tingling and numbness, you may have a pinched nerve or herniated disc.
  6. Memory loss or lack of concentration: Car crashes can cause both emotional and psychological issues, but these can also be caused by traumatic brain injury.
  7. Excessive sleeping or fatigue: Persistent exhaustion after a car accident may be due to a traumatic brain injury or depression. Both require seeking medical attention.

Common car accident injuries to expect

Soft tissue injuries

Soft tissue injuries are one of the most common types of injuries caused by car accidents. In this type of injury, there is damage to the muscles, tendons or ligaments that surround the bones. Soft tissue injuries occur when there is stress and impact to the body that the soft tissues cannot entirely absorb. Typically taking the form of strains or sprains, soft tissue injuries may take hours or days to develop into pain and present symptoms.

If you’re experiencing pain that lasts beyond a few days, you should consult with your doctor to determine the cause.


A type of soft tissue injury, whiplash typically develops within days of an accident. Symptoms of whiplash can include neck pain and stiffness, loss of range of motion in the neck, headaches, tingling or numbness in the arms, fatigue and dizziness.

Herniated disc

Sometimes, the force of a car accident can cause the vertebrae in the spine to balloon out or rupture, which is called a herniated disc. Herniated disc symptoms include severe pain and loss of feeling, which may not show up right away.

Knee injuries

During a collision, the impact sometimes causes a driver or passenger to be thrown forward, hitting their knee on the dashboard. The direct trauma to the knee can cause multiple injuries, including a fractured kneecap (patella), torn meniscus, or patella chondromalacia. The severity of the injury may not be immediately obvious, so it’s important to look for signs of inflammation and injury to the knee.

Shoulder injuries

The force of a car accident can sometimes cause one shoulder to be thrown forward due to the impact, or twist the body. This can cause bruising, strains and ligament tears, such a torn rotator cuff, that can worsen over time.

Spinal cord injuries

While experiencing back pain is normal after an accident, if you’re experiencing extreme pain or pressure, you should seek medical help right away because you may have a spinal cord injury. Car accidents are the number one cause of spinal cord injuries in the U.S.

Traumatic brain injuries

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is caused by impact to the brain and can result in long-term damage to brain function. Symptoms may not show up until days, weeks or months after an accident, and can take the form of a personality change, or becoming forgetful or easily angry. If you experience a concussion, are knocked unconscious, or have headaches after the accident, you should seek medical help immediately.

How long to look for symptoms after a car accident

The delayed onset of your symptoms depends on the type of injury sustained, as well as the severity of the accident.

  • Concussion symptoms may not show up until hours or days after the accident.
  • Internal bleeding or bruising, otherwise known as “seatbelt syndrome,” may not present symptoms until 1-3 days after the accident.
  • Brain and neck injuries may not show up until at least eight days after an accident.
  • Chronic pain may present itself immediately, but worsen significantly over time.

How long to expect pain after a car accident

How long you’ll experience pain and other symptoms depends on a number of factors, including:

  • The speed of the crash
  • The size of your vehicle and the other vehicle
  • Your position in the vehicle
  • Whether or not you were wearing a seatbelt
  • Whether or not your airbags went off
  • Any pre-existing injuries

How long does it take to recover from a car accident?

Auto accident recovery time depends on the severity of your injuries and the accident. It can take days, weeks, months or even years to completely heal. You can improve your recovery time by doing the following:

  • Seek medical attention immediately
  • Follow your doctor’s advice, including all long-term treatment like physical therapy
  • Get plenty of sleep and try to reduce stress

Alexander Orthopaedics: Your car accident treatment specialist

Being in a car accident is stressful enough. You don’t have to worry about your treatment plan with Alexander Orthopaedics. Our expert orthopedic specialists will work with you to create a personalized recovery plan to ensure you can recover from your car accident injuries. From managing your pain to physical therapy to surgery, we will be with you every step of the way on your road to recovery.

Schedule an Appointment Today.