My Head Hurts After my Car Accident. Do I Have a Traumatic Brain Injury?

As you approach an intersection with a green light, a driver turns left right in front of you. You slam on the brakes, but you know you don’t have enough time to stop.

You hear the awful clash of metal-on-metal and feel your body being thrown forward. Your head slams the steering wheel, and there’s blood dripping down from your forehead.

You’re well enough to get out of the car and walk around, but your head is throbbing. You’ve heard nightmare stories of concussions that linger for months. Is this a concussion? Or something worse?

What are concussions/traumatic brain injuries?

A concussion falls under the umbrella term of traumatic brain injury (TBI). A TBI can be caused by a blow or jolt to the head that causes your head to move back and forth rapidly. Mild TBIs are known as concussions. There are also moderate to severe TBIs.

While a concussion is not life-threatening, it can have serious repercussions. It can cause your brain to bounce around in your skull or to twist. These movements can damage your brain cells. They can even cause chemical changes in your brain.

How common are traumatic brain injuries in car accidents?

The Centers for Disease Control reports that of all TBIs that are serious enough to land people in the hospital, one-fifth are caused by motor vehicle crashes. Motor vehicle crashes also cause the most TBI-related deaths among people between ages 15 and 34.

How could a car accident cause a TBI?

With the impact of a car accident, your head could be thrown into the steering wheel, the dashboard, or the side of the car. It could even be hit by an object in the car that becomes airborne during a crash.

Even if your head doesn’t collide with a part of the car, or with flying debris, your head could be jolted backward or forward repeatedly (or from side to side). In all of these cases, your soft, fragile brain tissue could be slammed into the hard bone of your skull, causing a brain injury.

How do I know if I have a concussion?

It is common to start experiencing some concussion symptoms right after an accident, but other symptoms may take hours or days to develop.
Symptoms may include one or more of the following:

  • Pressure or pounding pain in the front of the head (around the forehead or temples)
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dizziness or blurred vision
  • Feeling hazy or groggy
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Confusion
  • Unexplained sadness
  • Memory problems (can’t recall what happened before or after the car crash)
  • Can’t remember instructions
  • Bothered by noise or light
  • Unexplained emotions (anxiety, irritability, anger, sadness)
  • Fatigue

Do I need to see a doctor?

After a car accident, it is always good to visit a doctor.
These symptoms could indicate an emergency and require an immediate emergency room visit:

  • An intensifying headache that won’t go away
  • Weakness, numbness, seizures
  • Decreased coordination
  • Ongoing vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • One eye pupil larger than the other
  • Loss of consciousness or memory

But what if you don’t have these emergency symptoms? Maybe you only have a slight headache or mild neck strain or feel a little more irritated than usual by noise. In these cases, it’s still a good idea to see a doctor. Your doctor can identify things that could turn into bigger problems later. They can help you get treatment to ward off future problems and help you know what activities may exacerbate your current injuries.

Seeing a doctor is also important in the event that you decide to press charges against the negligent party in the crash. Your doctor can document your injuries and show that they came from the accident, not from pre-existing conditions. (Trying to blame new symptoms from your accident on old injuries is a common tactic of insurance companies.)

If your doctor recommends follow-up treatment, make sure to follow through. Not only will this help you heal faster, it will demonstrate the extent of your health challenges and treatment costs.

What’s the difference between whiplash and a concussion?

Both whiplash and concussions are very common after car accidents, and they both result from the jolting motion of the crash impact. Thus, you may be wondering if you have whiplash instead of a concussion—or maybe even both.

Whiplash occurs when your head is knocked forward and backward during a car crash and the tendons and muscles in your neck stretch and/or rip. Whiplash is particularly common when you have been rear ended.

While whiplash affects the neck and shoulders, concussions affect the brain function because your brain is being thrown into the skull (usually repeatedly).

It is very common for people to end up with both of these injuries. The impact of the car wreck can jolt both your neck and your brain.

Whereas concussion pain or pressure tends to occur in the front of the head, whiplash pain is more common at the base of the skull. It is often accompanied by tenderness and pain in the neck and upper back. Your neck may feel stiff, and your neck motion may be limited. Both concussions and whiplash can cause fatigue and dizziness.

The symptoms of whiplash and concussion can start immediately or take hours or days to show up.

What are the risks of not seeing a doctor about my concussion?

While concussions generally go away on their own, a visit to the doctor can help you know how to facilitate the healing process. A doctor may examine your eyes and ask about your injury. They may check your vision, balance, memory, speech, and coordination. If merited, they may perform a CT scan or MRI or perform intracranial pressure (ICP) monitoring to detect brain swelling.

Your doctor may recommend that you limit physical activity, screen time, or mental activities that tax the brain.

They can tell you what to avoid to prevent a second concussion. Getting a second concussion before the first one has healed can lead to significant brain swelling and cause the rare but fatal condition known as “second-impact syndrome.”

A doctor can also detect if you are experiencing something worse than just a mild concussion–including brain swelling, bruising, and bleeding. Surgery or medications may be necessary to treat these symptoms.

In some cases, waiting too long to get medical attention for these conditions can prove fatal. For example, with a brain hematoma, a blood vessel in the head can break, causing a mass of blood to gather. When the blood begins to clot (a natural healing process), it could put pressure on the brain. This can ultimately cut off the blood-oxygen supply to the brain and result in death.

How long will my concussion last?

While many concussions resolve within a month, some people develop Post-Concussion Syndrome, which drags out concussion symptoms for months or a year or more.

What about all of the expenses from my TBI?

While some brain injuries heal quickly, others may leave you with frustrating and even debilitating symptoms long-term. Aside from the trauma of dealing with the symptoms, there’s the potential cost of missing work, paying for transportation (if your brain injury leaves you unable to drive), and paying for medical care.

If the accident was someone else’s fault, they have an obligation to cover your financial burdens. Even if they were only partially at fault, they should still bear their fair share of the liability. Contact our Salt Lake City car accident attorneys to learn how to file a personal injury claim. We will help you recover your financial losses so that you can focus on healing from the effects of your traumatic brain injury.