The health effects of injuries sustained in auto accidents may not be immediately obvious. It’s important to seek medical attention following a collision, even if you don’t feel that you’ve been seriously injured.

Research suggests that people who are involved in a car crash are more likely to wind up with chronic pain afterward than those sustaining other traumatic injuries.

One study, published in the journal Arthritis Care & Research (ACR), assessed patients’ recent experiences with six types of physical trauma — traffic accident, workplace injury, surgery, fracture, hospitalization, and childbirth — and found that people who had been involved in a traffic accident had an 84 percent increased risk of developing widespread chronic pain. No association was found between chronic pain and those who were hospitalized, had surgery, or gave birth.

What is Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts longer than six months. The actual pain can be mild or unbearable, occasional or incessant, and can range from slightly problematic to completely incapacitating. Chronic widespread pain is pain above or below the waist or on both sides of the body that is present for three months or longer, according to ACR. “We believe there are persons — defined by prior physical and psychological health — who in the event of a traumatic trigger are vulnerable to developing chronic widespread pain,” the study author explained.

Misfiring Nerves

Motor vehicle accidents can produce a disease in which the nervous and immune systems malfunction as they respond to tissue damage, either major or minor. The nerves are thought to misfire, sending continuous pain signals to the brain.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies this disease, complex regional pain syndrome/reflex sympathetic dystrophy (CRPS/RSD), as a rare disorder. However, the Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome Association (RSDSA) estimates that up to 200,000 people experience this condition in the United States in any given year.

CRPS/RSD may result from motor vehicle accidents, falls, and other types of significant trauma. It is most likely to affect individuals between the ages of 40 and 60, although children and the elderly may develop it as well. Like fibromyalgia, RSD/CRPS is more likely to occur in women.

The chronic condition commonly occurs after some type of musculoskeletal or nerve injury. The level of pain associated with CRPS/RSD is one of the most severe on the McGill pain index.

Fibromyalgia

Injuries can also contribute to development of a condition called fibromyalgia, in which people complain of aching all over. Symptoms of fibromyalgia usually develop within a few weeks of some type of physical trauma, meaning an injury such as a car accident, fall, sprain, strain, surgery, or even an insect bite. The limbs of the body are commonly affected, and the pain might be centralized on a finger or toe, or may spread throughout an entire arm or leg.

The pain and stiffness are usually worse in the morning and may be more intense in muscle groups that are used repetitively. Typical tender areas include the neck, shoulders, sternum, lower back, hip, shin, elbows, and knees. Doctors do not know what causes fibromyalgia but theorize that it most likely involves a series of factors, including:

  • Genetics, since fibromyalgia tends to run in families.
  • Infections, as some illnesses appear to trigger or aggravate fibromyalgia.
  • Physical or emotional trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder, which has been linked to fibromyalgia.

Chronic pain often causes lack of sleep and stress, which can lead to depression, another common condition among car accident victims who have suffered injury, loss of wages or job, and potentially a long-term decrease in the overall quality of their lives.

These long-term, chronic problems can arise even if the tissue damage from an injury was relatively minor. Because of this, it is important to seek medical attention immediately after an auto accident, even if you don’t feel that you’ve sustained significant injuries.

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