A car accident is a frightening experience. The shock of a crash can overwhelm victims physically and emotionally. As a result, injured victims may mistakenly believe they have survived the accident without serious injury. But not all injuries are visible, and even visible injuries that appear minor can signal major trauma that may severely impact your health and wellbeing.
That is why, the best and most cautious approach after a car accident is to always get a medical exam right away, even if you think you only sustained a few bumps, bruises, and scrapes. Failure to get a prompt medical evaluation after an automobile collision can put your health, future, and legal rights at risk.
You Are Not the Best Judge of Whether You Avoided Injury
Car accidents expose drivers and passengers to violent forces. Even with safety features like seatbelts and airbags, vehicle occupants virtually always suffer physical trauma in a crash. Their backs, hips, and torsos get jarred and twisted by angular impacts. Their heads strike windows or whip back and forth. Broken glass and twisted metal to cut their skin and pin their limbs. All of these forces can, and frequently do, inflict severe injuries.
But even after sustaining those injuries, crash victims like you may feel little or no pain after impact and see no noticeable signs of physical harm. You mistakenly think you’re fine and don’t need medical attention. And that puts you at risk for serious, even fatal, health complications.
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Why does this happen? Here are two principal reasons.
Your Mind/Body Stress Reaction to a Crash
The shock of a car accident triggers a near-instantaneous change in how your brain and body function. This is commonly known as the fight or flight response. It’s your body’s automatic reaction to a stressful situation or perceived danger to yourself or others, and it’s something you cannot control.
According to the famed Cleveland Clinic, the physiological changes associated with the fight or flight response can persist well after the danger passes or a stressful situation ends-which, in the case of a car accident, means not until after you have put the stress of the crash scene behind you. The changes commonly include increased heart rate and blood pressure, suppression of pain, tense muscles, hyper-awareness, light sensitivity, and distorted memory.
Each temporary change in how your mind and body function distorts your ability to assess yourself after a car accident. Quite literally, you will not be able to think straight or perceive pain accurately until you have the time and space to calm down. And although those distortions are helpful as a human survival mechanism, they can all too easily lead to you misdiagnosing your degree of injury and not getting the medical care you badly need.
Injuries With Delayed-Onset Symptoms
It’s not just your body’s fight or flight response that can trick you into thinking you walked away from a car accident without injury. The injuries themselves may stay hidden for a time, even though they already pose a serious risk to your health that will continue to worsen without medical attention. This delayed onset of symptoms can give you a false sense of security in the hours or days after a crash. But unfortunately, once symptoms begin to appear, it may be too late to avoid devastating or even fatal health complications.
Injuries That Cloud Your Judgment
Finally, you can never rule out that the injury you suffered in a car accident has affected your ability to perceive and assess your own physical and mental state. A brain injury, for instance, can alter your senses and can cause confusion and disorientation without you realizing it. Similarly, damage to your spinal cord from swelling in your spine can disrupt your ability to feel pain and may lead you to try to move your body in ways that only worsen the injury.
What Types of Injuries Could You Have Suffered Without Knowing It?
To summarize what we’ve learned so far, your mind, body, and physical trauma will likely conspire against your ability to perceive your injuries after a car accident. The accident may have badly hurt you without you knowing it. It happens to car accident victims like you all the time.
But over time, you will inevitably begin to feel worse, noticing symptoms and warning signs that your body has sustained significant injuries. It’s virtually always best not to wait for these symptoms to crop up because the injuries you suffered can risk your life and wellbeing.
Common car accident injuries that you may not immediately know you suffered include:
- Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), which may go unnoticed because their symptoms can mimic your brain’s fight or flight responses;
- Internal bleeding and organ trauma, the effects of which can take hours or days to develop;
- Spinal injuries, including damage to the spinal cord and to the physical structures of the spine, which can worsen with swelling and movement;
- Soft tissue injuries of the head and neck, commonly known as whiplash, which become increasingly painful in the hours and days after a crash;
- Broken bones, dislocations, and other orthopedic injuries, the pain of which the fight or flight response often masks.
As the list above suggests, virtually any injury that doesn’t result in external bleeding, abrasions, or swelling can hide from you during the stressful minutes and hours after a car accident, even though they need immediate medical attention.
How Can a Medical Exam Reveal Hidden Car Accident Injuries?
Medical providers, particularly doctors and nurses in emergency room settings and urgent care clinics, deal with motor vehicle accident injuries every day. They have the training and experience necessary to spot a hidden car accident injury and begin treating it before it gets worse.
Medical professionals will often take a systematic approach to diagnose injuries after a car accident. Obviously, they will want you to tell them what happened and how you feel, and they will examine any injuries that they can see. But they will also be looking for telltale signs that you may have suffered an injury that isn’t visible to the naked eye.
For example, healthcare workers may listen to how you answer questions or put you through a simple battery of tests to assess your mental state and the possibility of a TBI. They may manipulate your limbs or apply pressure to areas of your body to evaluate unseen internal trauma like broken bones. And they may use diagnostic imaging and radiology, such as x-rays, ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or CT scans, to look for hidden injuries such as bleeding, organ trauma, and spinal damage.
This medical attention can spot and treat your car accident injuries as soon as possible. In many cases, prompt medical care can help you avoid serious long-term health complications that could devastate your life.
How Soon After a Motor Vehicle Accident Should You Undergo a Medical Exam?
Seek a medical exam as soon as possible after getting into a car accident, even if you feel uninjured. If first responders came to the crash scene, allow them to check you over and follow their advice if they recommend an ambulance ride to the emergency room. Although most EMTs are not doctors, they’re still much better at assessing your condition than you are.
If, instead, a first responder allows you to leave the scene under your own power, you should still go directly to your nearest emergency room, urgent care clinic, or other medical provider for an immediate medical exam. Do not wait. Every hour could mean the difference between quick healing and long-term disability, or even life-and-death. Remember, you cannot trust your ability to assess whether you suffered an injury.
What Signs and Symptoms Can Indicate You Have a Serious Injury After a Car Crash?
If you did not seek medical attention immediately after a car accident (or even if you did), learn the warning signs that could signal a serious, undiagnosed injury.
If you experience one or a combination of these symptoms after a car accident, immediately seek emergency medical treatment by calling 911 or having someone drive you to the nearest hospital emergency department.
- Worsening pain or swelling
- Numbness, tingling, weakness, or paralysis
- Confusion, disorientation, memory loss, or loss of consciousness
- Sleep disruptions or excessive sleepiness
- Persistent and worsening headaches
- Irritability, mood swings, or personality changes
- Pain or pressure in the abdomen
- Difficulty breathing
- Nausea, dizziness, or loss of coordination
- Vision or other sensory problems
This is not a complete list, and we repeat that our strong advice is always to seek medical care after a car accident even if you feel uninjured. But if you notice these symptoms or any other worsening of a health condition after getting into a crash, there’s no time to wait. Seek care immediately.
Can You Go to a Primary Care Doctor, Instead of a Hospital, After a Car Accident?
It depends. If you have a primary care doctor you regularly visit, and you can get an immediate appointment, it’s usually ok to ask that doctor to conduct a medical exam. But remember that although primary care doctors can evaluate you for car accident injuries, they often have limited access to diagnostic tests and tools needed to assess your condition. Often, if a primary doctor believes you suffered a serious injury, they will refer you to a hospital or diagnostic center for further testing.
The important thing-and we can’t stress this enough-is that you seek medical care as soon as possible. If your regular doctor doesn’t have time to see you for a day or two, do not wait. If you want to avoid a hospital, go to a walk-in urgent care center instead.
Can an Injury Still Go Undetected After a Medical Evaluation?
Medical workers do their best, but they’re not all-seeing and all-knowing, and they can make mistakes. An initial medical exam may fail to identify a car accident injury, even though you have one. That is why, as we discussed above, you should always look out for worsening signs and symptoms. If, after receiving a clean bill of health from a doctor, you later begin to feel unwell, pain, or discomfort, do not hesitate to seek emergency care.
The Legal Benefits of Getting a Medical Exam After a Car Accident
So far, we’ve discussed why your health and wellbeing depend on you getting a medical exam after a car accident, even if you feel uninjured. But while your health should always take priority, it’s not the only reason to seek medical care after a crash. Your legal rights may also depend on seeking a prompt medical exam, especially if you initially think you walked away from a crash unharmed.
Medical exams create medical records. Those records serve as powerful evidence not just of your injuries, but also of their connection to the crash that caused them. The sooner you seek a medical exam after an accident, the stronger that evidentiary connection, and the better the chances that a car accident lawyer can use those records to get you financial compensation for your injuries and losses.
Seeking a medical exam can also help protect the value of your car accident claim. Defense lawyers and insurance companies representing the party at-fault for your crash will look for any reason they can to blame your injuries and losses on you. By getting a medical exam immediately, you prevent them from arguing that you made your injuries worse by not taking care of yourself.
After a Car Accident, First Get a Medical Exam, Then Contact a Lawyer.
Never wait to get a medical exam after a car accident, even if you feel uninjured. Prompt care protects your health, wellbeing, and legal rights.
After seeking care, contact an experienced car accident lawyer in your area for a free case evaluation. You may have the right to receive significant financial compensation to help pay for your injuries and losses.