Traumatic Brain Injuries After a Car Accident

You had an auto accident and immediately your head hurts. What just happened? Where am I? What happens now? You have a headache and it won’t go away. Will I have headaches forever now? Do I have a concussion? What is a concussion? My ears are ringing. Will that go away? Why can’t I see very well? Everything is all fuzzy. If you have head pain after a car accident, it is only natural to have these questions. Maybe you don’t have any immediate head pain, but head injuries will not always manifest right after a crash. You do not have to hit your head to be concussed or be injured with a mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI). Brain injuries can occur just from the force of your head whipping back and forth from a car crash. You do not have to hit your head in order for you to experience a concussion or mTBI. Inside of your skull your brain floats in a substance called cerebrospinal fluid. There are two main functions of cerebrospinal fluid and they are to help the brain receive nourishment and for support and cushion. Because the brain is surrounded by this fluid, it naturally forms a barrier when our head moves quickly. However, when forces to your head are too strong they can cause your brain to crash into the front or back of the inside of your skull causing acute trauma to the brain. Regardless if you hit your head or not, it is likely that you could have sustained a concussion or mTBI because of the forces that are experienced during a car accident.


A concussion or mild traumatic brain injury is something to take very seriously. The term mild traumatic brain injury is misleading because it is definitely not mild. An athlete who could have possibly sustained a concussion is immediately removed from competition and evaluated. This is the protocol for all athletes in all sports. So, if this is the protocol for sports why would a head injury in a car accident be any different? When you have been in a car accident it is vital that you seek medical care to assess your injuries. A person does not need to be knocked unconscious in order to sustain a concussion. There are many common symptoms that follow a concussion. They include but not limited to headaches, mental confusion, nausea, blurred vision, delayed or sluggish speech, responsiveness or movement, difficulty concentrating, light sensitivity, hearing sensitivity, dizziness, lack of balance, brain fog, memory loss, mood swings, depression, irritability, restlessness and sleeplessness.


Symptoms are not always recognizable right after an accident and sometimes they may not show up until days or even weeks after the initial injury. One of the toughest things about concussions or an mTBI is that physical signs like cuts and bruises are not always associated with a head injury, yet there can be an underlying injury. Some symptoms can mimic those of other serious head injuries such as intracranial bleeding or uncontrolled swelling in the brain. Head injuries of this caliber are life threatening. A competent medical professional such as a trained chiropractor or medical doctor should fully evaluate a car accident victim and if deemed necessary, have imaging done like a CT scan or MRI. In our office we will always order an MRI immediately following any sign of head trauma. Sometimes concussions can be missed while being treated in the emergency department. Being told that you don’t have a concussion does not mean that there isn’t one, especially if your symptoms worsen. If needed, your doctor can make a referral to a neurologist who specializes in traumatic brain injuries so that proper care can be taken. Expectations of healing and recovery of a concussion or mTBI should be almost non-existent because everyone is different and healing from this kind of injury will take time, some longer than others. The sooner you can seek care the quicker you can get on the road to recovery. 


Typically these symptoms will subside within a few weeks to a month after the auto accident. Symptoms that don’t improve or linger after this time period can be considered what is called post-concussive syndrome (PCS). PCS is very treatable much like a concussion but can also be aggravating to those who want to continue on with life after a car accident. Daily life can become frustrating because of these symptoms. It is important to find care after a concussion so that you don’t find yourself in a situation where you are still struggling months or years after a car accident because of PCS.


Being active again is very important after a concussion. Rest is also important shortly after an mTBI. Too much rest, however, for too long can actually slow down your recovery. Nowadays, bed rest is considered “old fashioned”. No longer is it a requirement to sit isolated in a dark room for hours after an mTBI. Rest is helpful for the first few days after the initial injury, but it becomes vitally important to begin to slowly transition back into normalcy once the acute stage has receded. Activities should be limited to sub-symptom levels as you begin to return to what life was like prior to the accident. What that means is being active in your life and doing things that do not cause symptoms to come back or increase in intensity, frequency or duration. Maintaining a gradual progression towards returning to normal should be the goal. Rest and a gradual increase in your normal daily habits is critical. If you were to jump back into things too soon, before your symptoms subside, and if another car accident or other head trauma occurs it could lead to very serious complications that can be fatal. The serious complications that we are referring to is called second impact syndrome and it is characterized by rapid swelling of the brain. This condition is more likely to happen with athletes and it is very rare, but it is important enough to always be cautious after being a victim of a concussion. We want you to be at your best and find someone who can treat you for an mTBI following a car accident.


The most common symptoms that we see are headaches, dizziness and feeling like you’re in a fog. Chiropractic care and neurocognitive rehabilitation are some of the best ways to help treat these symptoms. Unfortunately, these symptoms are also the most long lasting. Brain fog is usually the first to subside, usually after a week. Dizzy spells and headaches are the most common symptoms to linger for weeks or months after a car crash. You can be assured that over time those symptoms will decrease in intensity, frequency and duration. 


Some of the more challenging symptoms are the ones that conflict with each other. Restlessness and sleeplessness almost seems unfair. You may feel exhausted almost daily, yet when the time comes for bed you find yourself awake for hours. This can be taxing not just for your sanity but also for your overall health. Sleep is when our bodies recover the most and when you can’t sleep recovery can seem like an eternity. Continue to try your best to get some good hours of sleep and make a routine that will help your brain realize that it is time to rest. Some of the best advice would be to avoid blue lights before bed, meaning TV, computers, tablets and phones. Blue lights have been shown to lower your body’s ability to fall and stay asleep.


Your behavior may change after an auto accident and it can be more apparent to those around you. Dramatic mood swings are not uncommon and people can switch from one to the other in an instant. Sometimes it looks like a person is happy and friendly and it can change suddenly to irritability and hostility. Depression is also common with those who have experienced head trauma. Depression due to change in brain chemistry but also because of slow healing and recovery progression. Someone who did not experience many headaches before a brain injury and now all of a sudden has them constantly can be a lot for a person to handle. Your own changes in behavior could lead to feeling like you aren’t the same person as before the car accident. Counseling and therapy are wonderful tools that can aid in your healing process. An excellent support network such as friends and family are also vital to your cognitive and mental health. Loved ones and people close to you can help in recognizing signs of a concussion or an mTBI. Encouragement of seeking care for those you love after a car accident is huge because the injured victim may not know that they are reacting and behaving in ways that are different than what they were before. Qualified health professionals such as chiropractors, medical doctors and psychologists have training and resources to be able to help those in need.


Oftentimes when someone has been in a car accident they are transported to the emergency department at a hospital and the protocol is likely that the victim will be given a pain medicine prescription. Pain medication can mask concussion symptoms and a proper diagnosis can be missed. This is not the only problem because those same medications are contraindicated when treating a brain injury. It is more common practice to be conservative with pain medication. Being more safe than sorry is a good practice here because masking a serious brain injury with medication can be life threatening. Be safe and try not to take anything that may dull the sensitivity of what your body is telling you about how things are functioning or not functioning well.


Patience is crucial during your recovery. A brain injury is not like any other trauma to the body. Broken bones, ligament sprains, muscle strains, bruising and cuts and scrapes all heal relatively quickly compared to brain trauma. Neurons, which are cells within the brain and nerves, take much longer to recover and heal. Normal processes and communication that occur in the brain have been disrupted after a brain injury and your brain is trying to figure out how to continue to function. Your brain is also trying to take care of all the information that it was used to handling but now it has to do it in different ways. Pathways that your brain has mapped out to do normal things have been thrown into disorder and now your brain is going to try and make new pathways in order to accomplish necessary tasks. These new pathways are our brain’s way of rewiring the neural signals for sensory input and output which includes muscle control and coordination. Sometimes the pathways are not as efficient as they once were. These new pathways will sometimes pass through areas of the brain that are not intended to do the assigned task. Then, these areas of the brain can become lazy or overworked. Enter neurocognitive therapy. Neurocognitive therapy helps to correct areas of the brain so that they can do their specific responsibilities and not off-load them to areas that aren’t meant to do those types of jobs. These cases can be difficult to overcome if you are a patient or loved one because it leads to longer lasting effects and problems. This is what leads to the brain fog, irritability, mood swings, depression, lack of balance, headaches, memory loss and difficulty concentrating. It takes time. Be patient with the healing process. One day may be really good and the next you may feel like you took four steps backwards. Give yourself and your brain some slack. It is a tremendous injury that you are trying to overcome and it is more than possible to accomplish the goal of getting back to living life to the fullest.


Concussions and mTBI’s are to be treated with the utmost care. We encourage you to seek treatment and help because not getting the care you need can have life altering and long lasting effects. Concussions are being diagnosed more and more because of the ongoing research that is being done. We are finding that more often a concussion or TBI can be diagnosed even if you have had a small “fender bender”. In our changing world we are moving at a more rapid pace and things are moving more quickly either on the road or in sports or in various aspects of our lives. Because such events are taking place it is becoming easier to experience head trauma and concussions. After a head injury or concussion it is important to slow down and not try to keep up with everything that is going on around you. It may seem that you want to jump right back into where you left off but you may find yourself frustrated and irritated because the symptoms of a mTBI or even the trauma itself can limit you and your ability to function and thrive. We are here to be your advocate to getting the treatment and care that you need to overcome the obstacles of having a mTBI. Don’t hesitate, if you feel in any way that you might be suffering from any of the mentioned symptoms and other signs then reach out so that we can help.