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The First Steps of Recovery After a Car Accident

Every day about 7,000 people are hurt in car accidents. Many more are injured in other accidents.

Wounds from these accidents can vary from minor scrapes and bruises to much more serious injuries. Generally, accidental injuries affect each body part a little differently. Treatment and recovery after injuries also differs depending on the body part and severity.

Here’s what medical professionals know about auto accident injuries from head to toe.

  1. Head and brain injuries — Drivers and passengers are susceptible to head injuries due to hitting a windshield, side window, roof, steering wheel, loose objects or other people.

    A common injury is a concussion caused by a blow to the head. With a concussion (also called a traumatic brain injury), your brain bounces around inside your skull. This causes chemical changes in your brain. You may not notice symptoms right away. You should know the symptoms such as headache, neck pain, nausea or dizziness. Sometimes the symptoms can take days or weeks to appear.

    Treatment: You’ll want to see a health care professional. The primary treatment for a mild concussion is rest. We recommend you cut back on physical activities and activities that require a lot of concentration. If more severe concussion symptoms are present, you may need to go to the hospital. You may have bleeding under the skull (subdural hematoma). Bleeding in the skull is a medical emergency.

    Recovery: For mild concussions, most patients notice symptoms diminish in 2 to 3 weeks after onset. The recovery from a subdural hematoma is more complicated and depends on the severity of the injury.


  2. Facial injuries — Hitting the steering wheel, airbag, another part of the car or a loose object can injure facial skin, teeth and the bones underneath.

    Treatment: Cuts may need stitches. Scrapes may be bandaged. For the more serious injuries, such broken facial bones, surgery may be needed.

    Recovery: The time needed will depend on the severity of the injuries. Scrapes will take a few days to weeks to heal. Surgical repairs may take weeks to months to heal.


  3. Neck injuries such as whiplash — It’s common for rear or side impact crashes to cause your neck to snap quickly. Injuries can range from mild neck strain, to dislocation of vertebrae (the bones of the spine).

    Treatment: Mild neck strain may be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers. A dislocation or other serious vertebrae injury may require surgery.

    Recovery: Whiplash symptoms can last several weeks. Recovery time after surgery will vary depending on the procedure needed. Full recovery can take months.


  4. Collarbone (clavicle) and rib injuries — Your seatbelts help keep your whole body safe. In a major accident, your body’s weight can quickly press forward against the shoulder belt. This can injure your collarbone. In more extensive crashes, rib injuries can also occur.

    Treatment: A broken collarbone may heal on its own, usually immobilized with special braces. If the damage is more extensive, surgery may be needed.

    Recovery: The healing process may take 6 to 16 weeks.


  5. Back and spinal cord injuries — Back and spinal cord injuries can be among the most traumatic in an accident. As the car rapidly shifts positions under you, the small discs along your spine can be twisted or pushed out of alignment. Your back bones can even be fractured. This can result in spinal cord injuries, which often result in reduced feeling or function loss in extremities.

    Along with injuries to the spine, soft tissues such as back muscles and tendons can be strained or pulled. Ligaments can be sprained.

    Treatment: For minor back pain, we may recommend rest and ice or heat application, along with over-the-counter pain relievers. If pain doesn’t go away in a couple of weeks, you may want to see you primary care physician for an evaluation and get a referral to see a chiropractor. We have a number of treatment options for back pain.

    More severe injuries, such as spinal cord injury, broken bones or muscle tears, may require surgery.

    Recovery: Minor muscle strains should heal within weeks. Muscle tears that need surgery may require therapy and months to heal. Bones that are surgically repaired normally require 3 to 4 months to fully heal.

    With spinal injuries, your body will do most of its healing work in the first 6 months after the injury. Physical functions that aren’t restored in the first year after injury will likely not return.

  6. Internal injuries — Your seatbelt will help protect you in an accident. But wearing the lap belt incorrectly can cause internal injuries as your entire body weight is rapidly pressed against the belt. During a crash you can sustain injuries to muscles in the torso, along with your heart, lungs, liver, spleen, kidneys or bowels.

    If you have pain in your torso after a crash, you should promptly see a health care clinician.

    Internal injuries can result in internal bleeding. In that case, immediate medical care is essential. The signs of internal bleeding include abdominal pain and/or swelling, dizziness or fainting, development of an area of deep purple skin and headache, seizures or loss of consciousness.

    Treatment: For muscle strains, we may recommend RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation).

    If minimal internal bleeding is suspected, the doctor may observe the patient to see if the bleeding will stop on its own.

    For severe internal bleeding, surgery may be required.

    Recovery: Times will vary widely depending on the extent of the injuries and the treatment required. In the case of internal bleeding, the best outcomes result when prompt professional medical care is received.


  7. Lower extremity injuries — Your seatbelt will help protect you from some lower extremity injuries. Without a seatbelt, your legs may hit the dash and/or the steering column. Common injuries include leg, knee and foot sprains (ligament injury), strains (damage to muscles or tendons) and bone breaks.

    Treatment: For minor injuries, we may recommend RICE and over-the-counter pain relievers. For broken bones, a cast or other external support may be applied. For more severe breaks, surgery may be required. We may also recommend physical therapy.

    Recovery: A broken leg may need from 6 to 8 weeks. As with other injuries, more time will be needed for more severe injuries. Therapy may be in important part of recovery.


  8. Psychological injuries — People naturally focus on the physical injuries of a crash, but a traumatic event can cause mental health issues, too. The mental trauma can affect both the driver and passengers. Issues can include posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

    Treatment: A counselor may suggest anxiety management, meditation or other tools to reduce anxiety.

    Recovery: There is no set time for recovery from the psychological trauma. Seek guidance from a mental health care professional if you have concerns about the mental aspects of recovery


Both the injuries and treatment can vary widely after an accident. We’ve laid out some general recovery timelines, but actual recovery will depend on injury severity and the patient’s age and general health. Younger healthy patients tend to recover faster.

Accident injuries heal faster if you carefully follow your clinician’s advice, participate in physical therapy as recommended, get plenty of sleep and eat a well-balanced diet.

To increase your family’s safety while traveling, always wear your seatbelt, drive the speed limit and avoid distractions while you’re driving.

Another good safety reminder is to know the location of the emergency room or trauma center nearest your home, work and other places you spend lots of time. You can find nearby health care facilities online. The time saved in knowing where to go in an emergency can save the life of someone your care about.

Meet the Author

Ofer M. Zikel, MD, is a neurosurgeon at Aurora Medical Center in Summit, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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