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Why Symptoms Sustained During Auto Accidents Are Often Delayed

Each year in the United States there are more than 7 million car accidents that lead to upwards of 3.1 million injuries. And while these accidents happen in the blink of an eye, the trauma to your body can linger for months or years afterward, and the symptoms often don’t come on right away.

At Beeson Wellness Center, we specialize in helping our patients in the Portland, Oregon, area deal with the physical aftermath of car accidents, which can range from whiplash to chronic back issues. One of the trickiest aspects of this type of trauma is that while you’re just thankful to be alive and moving after your accident, you may still be injured, as the symptoms can sometimes be delayed.

To better understand why this happens, and what you should be on the lookout for, here’s a quick look at the physics of a car accident and the telltale signs that you may be dealing with an injury, despite the lack of immediate symptoms. 

Physics 101

The reason why so many car accidents lead to injuries is that there’s a considerable amount of kinetic (moving) energy that’s being displaced and diffused in an instant, using every avenue available. 

As you’re driving along, you’re creating kinetic energy (aka energy of motion), and when you apply your brakes, you release the energy through this mechanism. In a car accident, you rarely have the luxury of relying on your brakes to release the energy, which then gets absorbed by your car, and your body.

Modern cars are specifically built to absorb a fair amount of the energy generated in a collision, but you’re sitting in that car, so some energy inevitably flows through you, jolting your body in ways it wasn’t designed for. As a result, some of the most common injuries in a car accident include:

  • Fractures from a seatbelt
  • Whiplash and neck injuries
  • Knee injuries from front-end collisions
  • Head trauma

In severe crashes, you’re also at risk for internal injuries as the kinetic energy scrambles (for lack of a more eloquent term) your insides.

Why the delay in symptoms?

There are a couple of reasons why you may feel the effects of a car crash hours, days, or even weeks after the event. First, in an accident, your adrenaline rushes in to protect you by:

  • Decreasing your ability to feel pain
  • Tensing your muscles
  • Sending oxygen to your lungs and brain

This physiological reaction allows you to keep moving and thinking when you’re faced with danger. But when the adrenaline slowly leaves your body, you’re left to take stock of any injuries you may not have noticed.

In the best case scenario, you feel very sore next the next day as your muscles recover from the sudden tensing action brought about by your adrenaline. However, this is also the time that neck, back, and head injuries begin to reveal themselves, as your body attempts to heal the injury by creating inflammation.

What to look out for

After you’ve had a car accident, the next 24 hours are critical as your body slowly adjusts and the damage becomes apparent. Whiplash symptoms, for example, often develop the next day and include:

  • A stiff and painful neck
  • A headache
  • Dizziness
  • Pain in your shoulders and down your arms
  • Cognitive difficulties

You may have also compressed or fractured a vertebra, in which case you should be on high alert for any pain that develops along your spine.

We’d also like to emphasize the importance of seeking immediate medical attention if you suspect you’ve sustained head trauma. If you didn’t lose consciousness at the scene of the accident, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re in the clear. So if you experience a headache, nausea and vomiting, or dizziness, please seek emergency care.

If, however, you find that your shoulder or knee, as examples, becomes increasingly stiff and you’re losing range of motion and support, this is a good time to give us a call.

It’s hard for us to list all of the potential symptoms you might feel after a car accident, but we recommend that you use your best judgment and err on the side of caution. If something doesn’t feel right, and it doesn’t get better after a day or two of rest and icing, that’s a good indication that you should seek our medical help.

If you’re unsure, please give us a call and one of the members of our team will help point you in the right direction.

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