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PTSD After a Car Accident

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), motor vehicle accidents injured 2,746,000 people and killed 37,133 on U.S. roads in one recent year. Many of those injured suffered or may still suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) as a result of the accident. A study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health shows that 30.49 percent of 528 people injured in a car crash accident and suffered from PTSD when they were tested six weeks to six months after the wreck.

What Is PTSD?

According to the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, PTSD “is a pathological anxiety disorder resulting after exposure to a traumatic event.” Many people are familiar with PTSD as a condition that afflicts soldiers who have been in combat. But PTSD can arise from a wide variety of frightening, stressful, or life-threatening situations, including car accidents, that a person lives directly, witnesses happening to others, or even hears about second-hand.

PTSD After A Car Accident
Car Accident PTSD Accident

The symptoms of PTSD may appear within a month or two after a terrifying event or they may appear several years later. Research continues about why PTSD has such varying effects on sufferers. However, doctors have been able to narrow down symptoms and triggers for PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD fall into four general categories: Intrusive memories, avoidance, changes in mood and cognition, and arousal and hyper-reactivity. Not all people suffer from all types of symptoms, while some can most certainly experience all of the symptoms.

Intrusive Memories

Sufferers of PTSD often recall the traumatic accident or incident so vividly that it feels as though the incident happens all over again. This sort of “flashback” differs from having memories of a car crash, which also happens. Other intrusive memories include nightmares and getting severely distressed when something reminds the sufferer of the accident, known as a trigger. The type of car accident and cause of the auto accident can play a role in the types of triggers one may experience.


Having sensed what triggers intrusive memories, a person suffering from PTSD may employ strategies to avoid thinking about the accident or talking about it. They may steer clear of places and people that trigger the memories, for example, or self-medicate with prescription or illicit drugs to dull the intensity of a flashback.

Mood and Cognition Changes

PTSD sufferers often experience a markedly negative shift in mood. They may verbalize negative thoughts about themselves, the world, and, conversely, may struggle to feel positive emotions.

Other mood and thinking changes include:

  • Feeling hopeless about the future, like you have nothing to live for. You also have trouble with positive emotions.
  • You have trouble keeping friends and trouble with romantic relationships. You might also feel detached from family and friends. You might also feel numb.
  • You have a hard time remembering things, including pieces of the event that caused PTSD.
  • You don’t enjoy activities you used to love.
  • You might startle or scare easily and are always looking out for danger.
  • You might have trouble concentrating and sleeping.
  • You might feel guilty or shame for the event.
  • You might adopt self-destructive behaviors, such as always driving too fast, drinking until you pass out, doing drugs and other behaviors that you think will take you away from the incident or make you forget about it.
  • You may become irritable or aggressive for no reason—usually out of the blue.

PTSD is usually a combination of several or all of these symptoms and may often lead to depression. If you or a loved one starts noticing symptoms of PTSD, you should see a mental health counselor as soon as possible so that the doctor may properly diagnose the condition.

The sooner you start working on PTSD symptoms, the easier it is to overcome this syndrome for most people. Depending on your personality, you may be able to overcome PTSD with psychological therapy or you may need medication to help you through it. Some people are on medication for a short time, while others may need it for many years. For example, a veteran who saw atrocities during the Vietnam Conflict may require medications for many years while he tries to overcome feelings of helplessness, guilt and shame, and to stop daily flashbacks and nightmares.

Risk Factors of PTSD

Some people are more apt to suffer from PTSD after a car wreck than others. If you went through a previous traumatic experience or you have had prior psychological problems, you might be more likely to suffer from PTSD. Other risk factors include:

  • Family members who have psychological issues.
  • If you think your life or another person’s life is threatened during the wreck.
  • If you dissociated during or after the wreck.
  • If your emotions, including helplessness, guilt, fear, shame, and horror, run high during the wreck or just after the wreck.

A study published in ScienceDirect showed that it wasn’t so much the event that causes PTSD, but the thinking that your life or another person’s life was in danger, that was the strongest cause of PTSD. In other words, those with PTSD after a motor vehicle accident weren’t influenced by the severity of the accident as much as they were influenced by how the person looks at and responds to the accident after the fact. Additional factors may point to someone developing PTSD, according to an article in MDedge. These factors may include:

  • Taking too long to recover physically;
  • Getting major depression within two months after the wreck;
  • Those who felt vulnerable during the accident;
  • Those who have trouble with family relationships after the crash; and
  • Those who abused alcohol before the accident.

A study by Blanchard et al., according to the National Institute of Health, showed that 53 percent of car accident victims that developed PTSD have mood disorders. Other studies have shown similar percentages.

Another study by Coffey, Gudmundsdottir, Beck, Palyo, and Miller also showed that those who suffered from chronic pain as a result of the wreck were more likely to develop PTSD. Finally, Duckworth and Iezzi found that many victims of motor vehicle accidents who suffered from psychological distress did not have good pain coping strategies and had physical impairment were also more likely to show signs of PTSD.

PTSD Diagnosis

If you believe that you might be suffering from PTSD, see your mental health provider to be correctly diagnosed. Because you might be entitled to compensation for psychological therapy from the at-fault driver or his insurance company, you will need to include the diagnosis in your settlement negotiations or at trial. Mental health professionals ask you a series of questions to help determine if you might have PTSD.

PTSD Treatment

While it might seem like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, you can recover from PTSD. Depending on your symptoms, how long you’ve been suffering from symptoms, the severity of the event, and other factors, treatment could be as short as a few months. Your mental health professional will discuss treatment methods and your circumstances with you to create a plan that will help you recover as soon as possible.


According to the Veteran’s Affairs (VA), several types of treatment exist. Mental health professionals have extensive experience in treating PTSD, especially those professionals who work with Vietnam veterans. While veterans of all wars suffer from PTSD, Vietnam vets have been fighting this syndrome for many more years than others in most recent wars and conflicts.

Patients are usually more responsive to trauma-focused psychotherapies. This type of treatment focuses on the memory of the incident—in this case, the car accident. Sub-treatments may focus on taking or thinking about the crash, or visualizing the accident. Mental health professionals put veterans through eight to sixteen weeks of therapy. If your car accident was recent, you might be successful with fewer treatments.

  • Prolonged exposure helps you face the negative feelings you have after the accident. Once you face those feelings, you are more likely to get control over your emotions. During sessions using prolonged exposure, you might talk about the accident and discuss why you avoid certain activities or events after the crash.
  • Cognitive processing therapy helps you divert the negative thoughts you have that are associated with the accident. You’ll speak with your mental health care professional and write your thoughts down.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing help you by having you think about the accident while you are doing something else like listening to a specific tone or watching a light or finger move back and forth.

While those therapies are the most successful, according to the VA, mental health professionals have other types of therapies if they do not seem to work on some people, including brief eclectic psychotherapy, narrative exposure therapy, written narrative exposure and specific cognitive behavioral therapy for PTSD.


Sometimes, people need medication to help with PTSD. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are the two types of medications used to treat PTSD. They are antidepressants and are commonly used to treat anxiety and depression. The medications change the level of serotonin or norepinephrine, the two “mood” chemicals that occur in your brain.

While mental health professionals have several medications to choose from, they found that sertraline, paroxetine, fluoxetine, and venlafaxine may work best for treating PTSD. As with any drug, one type may not work for you. If that happens, let your mental health provider know so she can try a different medication. Any of the drugs could take up to six weeks to take effect, depending on the drug, your physical makeup, and the severity of your PTSD symptoms.

If you are not comfortable taking SSRIs or SNRIs, or none of them work for you, mental health professionals have other drugs to try, including nefazodone, which changes the levels of serotonin that naturally occurs in your brain. Imipramine is an antidepressant that works on the chemical that helps brain cells communicate to help better your mood. The third drug available is phenelzine, a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI). This drug stops the brain from producing the enzyme that breaks down norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine.

Other Treatments

Attorney John Gomez
Car Accident Attorney, John Gomez

Similarly, there are alternative treatments that have been known to work for some people. After speaking with your doctor, you may add these treatments to the above-mentioned treatments, or try them in lieu of taking medication. These treatments include meditation, yoga, acupuncture, transcranial magnetic stimulation or hyperbaric oxygen therapy. As always, these treatments may have benefits and risks that you should discuss with your doctor.

Your insurance company may not pay for some of these treatments. However, if you have to sue the other driver because the insurance company refuses to come to a fair and reasonable offer or because the insurance policy’s limit does not pay enough, you might get enough compensation to try one or more of these other treatments.

PTSD and Treatments

Always keep in mind that not all treatments work for every person, so you may have to try different treatments. Also, recovering from PTSD caused by a car accident takes time. You may need to be willing to talk about difficult life experiences and accept support from the mental health staff. Working through PTSD, with or without medication, is a journey that you should take at your own pace. Just remember, the end game is to improve the quality of your life.

If you or a loved one is suffering PTSD symptoms due to the negligence or wrongful acts of another party, contacting an experienced legal team can help you recover the compensation you need to pay for the treatments to help you get better.

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