Car Accidents and Trauma

From the desk of Dr. Jonathan Lasson

Dr. Jonathan M. Lasson explores the effects of car accidents and trauma.

Car Accidents and Trauma

Every year, approximately 3 million people are injured in car accidents. Although car accidents are relatively common, not everyone will experience trauma as a result of the accident. In this article, Dr. Lasson explores the symptoms related to trauma secondary to a car accident and provides a case study of an individual suffering from trauma as a result of an MVA (motor vehicle accident).

National Center for PTSD

According to the National Center for PTSD, about 9 percent of people involved in car accidents will meet the criteria for PTSD. The specific criteria for PTSD according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) include

  1. A stressor (direct exposure, witnessing the trauma, indirect exposure)
  2. Intrusion symptoms (unwanted upsetting memories, nightmares, flashbacks)
  3. Avoidance (trauma-related thoughts or feelings or external reminders)
  4. Negative alterations in cognition and mood (inability to recall key features of the trauma, negative affect, decreased interest in activities)
  5. Alterations in arousal and reactivity (irritability, hypervigilance, heightened startle reaction)
  6. Duration (more than one month)
  7. Functional significance (how it impacts social, occupational, educational functioning)
  8. Exclusion (meaning the symptom are not due to medication substance abuse etc…)

Let’s Consider

Let’s consider the following case which many people have heard of or personally experienced.

Shari was stopped at a red light with two of her children in her car. As the light turned green and Shari proceeded through the intersection, Shari was hit by another vehicle who went through the red light. Shari absorbed most of the impact as she was hit on the driver’s side but she was most concerned about her two children. After the accident scene was cleared, Shari took the children to the hospital.  One of the children had a slight laceration from glass. The other child was had no external injuries. Shari suffered some bruising on her neck and complained of headaches as well as neck and back pain.

Shari attended physical therapy for 3 months and saw positive results but she was plagued by constant thoughts and flashbacks of the accident. She avoided the intersection where the accident occurred. Eventually she stopped driving altogether and began relying on her husband and friends to transport her to and from work. Additionally, Shari called a cardiologist friend on several occasions because her heart would race more frequently than usual. Her friend, the cardiologist, recognized that she would react this way to any sudden and loud sounds such as the slamming of the door. He recommended that Shari see a therapist. The therapist evaluated her and determined that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from the car accident.

The psychological impact of car accidents

The psychological impact of injuries sustained in car accidents has not been very widely studied, says Dr. Lasson, as many who are involved in car accidents do not attribute psychological distress to a collision. Injuries may range from minor to severe with the latter resulting in traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, burns to the body and possible amputation of limbs (in most severe cases). For those involved in such severe accidents, the treatment is extensive and will typically include psychological care as part of the rehabilitation process. However, those who suffer injuries that are deemed to be minor in severity, the psychological symptoms are often overlooked.

Depressive mood, elevated anxiety and driving phobia were once reported as prevalent in 21-67{41f6a8cd69fcb78fbe276eaca4dd70a335b47ed3adb0dac6d412b0537a73954c} of individuals involved in car accidents. These symptoms can be prolonged as many people do not seek appropriate help for their trauma. Additionally, psychological distress can be exacerbated by experiencing a protracted adversarial compensation process, loss of work and financial hardship. These factors cannot be ignored when assessing the psychological damage caused by a MVA.

In this day and age, Dr. Lasson adds, where there are more commuters with what we think would be more technologically sophisticated vehicles, we are still seeing an increase in MVA’s. “We rely on the technology which gives us a false sense of security. Cell phone usage compounds the problem as the “no texting while driving” campaign fall on deaf ears for some. The increase in MVA’s will only lead to more cases of PTSD secondary to motor vehicle accidents,” says Dr. Lasson.

How do I heal?

What should people do to help heal from the psychological trauma following a car accident? Firstly, they should know that they are not alone. Many others have gone through MVA’s and have come out more alert on the road and better drivers in general. Talk to others who have been through a similar situation. Secondly, victims should seek the help from competent mental health professionals. Psychologists and other mental health professionals can be helpful in the evaluation and treatment of individuals suffering from PTSD. Using cognitive behavioral therapy, relaxation training or systematic desensitization approaches are helpful tools in getting victims back behind the wheel again.

Dr. Jonathan M. Lasson is a registered psychology associate who works in private practice in Maryland. He has worked with many victims of car accidents and has conducted neuropsychological assessments for victims of MVA’s.