If you are involved in a car accident, your physical injuries are usually readily detectable. X-rays will show broken bones. CT scans will reveal a herniated disc in your neck or back. Lacerations, abrasions, and contusions (also known as cuts, scrapes, and bruises) are observable with the naked eye.
You can feel the pain of muscular sprains and strains, and your doctor can observe your discomfort when your muscles are palpated (touched) and can tell if your muscles are in spasm. Less obvious, and more unexpected, are the emotional problems that many people have after a car crash, which can include:
• Fear of driving, or even riding in a car
• Nightmares about the crash
• Trouble sleeping
• Recurring intrusive thoughts, during the day, about the crash
• Irritability and difficulty concentrating
• Worry about your medical bills being paid, or about not being able to work
• Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
The Emotional Toll of Car Accidents: Facts and Figures
An article written by Todd Buckley, PhD for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD, “Traumatic Stress and Motor Vehicle Accidents”, tells us that about 1% of the United States population is injured in motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) every year, which translates to over 3,000,000 injuries annually. This makes car accidents one of the most common traumas that people experience.
Dr. Buckley says that “a substantial minority of MVA survivors suffer from mental health problems, the most common of which are PTSD, Major Depression, and Anxiety Disorders.” About 9% of people in the general population who survive MVAs develop PTSD.
Between 14% and 100% of MVA survivors who seek mental health treatment have PTSD, with an average of 60% across studies that have looked at this issue. Again depending on the study, between 3% and 53% of MVA survivors who seek treatment and have PTSD also have a mood disorder such as major depression. In one large study, 27% of MVA survivors who sought treatment and had PTSD also had an anxiety disorder, and 15% reported they had a driving phobia.
According to Dr. Buckley, researchers have found that certain variables are useful in predicting who might experience PTSD after a car accident:
Characteristics present before the MVA
• “Poor ability to cope in reaction to previous traumatic events”
• “The presence of a pre-accident mental health problem (e.g., depression)”
• “Poor social support”
Of course, these problems diminish the quality of life of anyone who experiences them, and they make dealing with a car crash more difficult and make it more likely for the sufferer to develop PTSD.
Circumstances related to the accident
• “Amount of physical injury”
• “Potential life-threat”
• “Loss of significant others”
In other words, not surprisingly, you are more likely to develop PTSD if you were seriously injured, if the accident was life-threatening, and if people you cared about were killed in the accident.
Circumstances after the accident
• “Rate of physical recovery from injury”
• “Level of social support from friends and family”
• “Level of active reengagement in both work and social activities”
Clearly, you should seek appropriate treatment for your physical injuries and follow your doctors’ recommendations (for example, to see specialists, get physical therapy, or do regular home exercises) in order to hasten your recovery, and you should ask for help from your family and friends and engage in your normal work and social activities as soon and as much as you can.
Expected Conditions from a Car Accident
People who experience the trauma of a car accident are more likely to be injured or develop a chronic pain condition than are people who experience other kinds of trauma, which complicates the diagnosis and treatment of PTSD. This is due to the fact that many people, after car accidents, focus on being treated for their physical injuries without considering psychological treatment for some time. About half of people who develop PTSD but do not seek treatment for their symptoms continue to have those symptoms for more than six months or a year.
If you have been in a car accident, it is important to pay attention to your emotional as well as your physical health. Seeking treatment for psychological conditions as soon as possible will help your health, and it will also help your legal claim if you have one.
If someone else was at fault in causing your accident, you are entitled to compensation for your emotional suffering just as you are for your physical pain. But just as with physical injuries, if you do not seek treatment, or wait too long to be treated or have big gaps between treatment visits, your emotional injuries will not be taken seriously by the insurance company that is evaluating your claim for possible settlement. (“He must not be too upset since he didn’t go see anyone about it.”)
Car Accidents and PTSD
PTSD related to a car accident is treatable, according to Dr. Buckley. Behavior therapy, cognitive therapy, and medications are used, sometimes in conjunction with treatment by a chronic pain specialist to help manage the patient’s physical pain (which, of course, contributes to emotional problems).
Emotional problems after a serious car accident are normal, not something to be ashamed of. In an article by Terri A. Lechnyr, PhD, MSW, LCSW entitled “Psychological Wounds of Trauma and Motor Vehicle Accidents,” published in Practical Pain Management, Dr. Lechnyr writes that events that threaten one’s life, body, or sanity “overwhelm the individual’s ability to psychologically cope.”
She continues, “Traumatic responding patterns occur as a result of feeling out of control of one’s physical and/or emotional experience. Since a sense of having control over one’s life is central to feeling stable and comfortable in one’s life experience, a loss of this sense can be quite overwhelming, exhausting, and confusing. When an extraordinary event or experience occurs that alters one’s existential experience, it is unexpected and threatens our sense of security and certainty in the world.”
It is normal, Dr. Lechnyr writes, to be anxious, depressed, or agitated, or to have nightmares after a frightening car accident. Yet, many patients are embarrassed about these symptoms and don’t disclose them to their doctors unless they are questioned pointedly. They may feel guilty or weak for not being able to control these symptoms on their own, which can result in the symptoms becoming worse.
Again, treatment is important, the sooner the better. Car accidents take an emotional toll—but not one that needs to last forever.
Contact Your Nashville Injury Attorneys
After being involved in a car accident, you're likely to be going through a lot of emotions. Once you've spoken with a healthcare professional, it's important you reach out to an experienced personal injury attorney for legal representation. Contact our office for a free consultation today.