When to go to the ER after an automobile accident

You Asked: To go to the ER or not? What to do after a car accident

Your fender bender can put a dent in your health
June 5, 2017

A road trip with carpool karaoke, snacks and fighting over radio stations can bring your family or friends together. However, nothing can send a nice drive downhill fast like getting in an automobile accident, and the initial panic and adrenaline rush can overtake your judgement in deciding what steps to take next in making sure that you are okay—or if you need medical attention. An expert from the Texas A&M College of Medicine weighs in on what you should know before you go to the emergency room.

When to go

An accident can occur at any time, and whether it’s an automobile accident due to texting while driving or changing the radio stations, it can be very serious. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, in 2015, over 246,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes, and one reportable crash occurred every minute. Even with accidents happening so frequently, though, the guidelines about when to seek emergency care are not as easy as a red light or green light.

“There’s not really a set standard or rule for when you should go to the emergency room,” said Aaron Buzzard, MD, emergency physician and clinical assistant professor with the Texas A&M College of Medicine. “The first thing you want to evaluate is the amount of pain you’re feeling, and that should be your main deciding factor.”

Low-speed collisions that don’t deploy airbags or significantly damage your car may seem inconsequential, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have injuries to worry about. Upper neck, spine or head injuries can occur at lower speed, especially if you don’t have time to brace yourself for the impact. These injuries can include concussions and herniated disks in the spine.

“Some of the injuries to your head or neck can be unpredictable,” Buzzard said. “It’s best to go to an emergency room if you have some pain in those areas or substantial pain or discomfort in other large muscles, such as your back, after an accident.”

Take a few deep breaths

Tensions can be high after an accident, but there are instances where a trip to the emergency room might not be necessary, and it’s instead best to call your primary care provider or seek the nearest urgent care facility.

“Some people may think that if they’re stiff after an accident, then they should seek emergency care, but that isn’t the best guideline,” Buzzard said. “The main deciding factor should be the amount of pain you’re in, because muscle strains and aches are common after a collision but don’t warrant a trip to the emergency room.”

On the other hand, there are a number of chemicals that may be running throughout your body after an accident that can hide some pain. There are instances in which athletes have an injury, and not only play through it, but may forget about it because of the adrenaline that is rushing through their bodies. The same thing can happen to you after a car accident and can last for hours after the accident.

It’s also important to know that there are, of course, serious injuries that will absolutely warrant a trip to the emergency room, and the police officers that show up to the scene will probably tell you the same thing. These include head trauma, obvious major bleeding and difficulty or painful breathing.

“An accident can be stressful or scary,” Buzzard said. “If you’re caught up in the moment, but then go home and a few hours later feel significant pain or discomfort, you should go to seek emergency care. There are physicians there who have more experience dealing with trauma-related injuries who can tend to your needs.”

If you feel fine, but are still concerned about your health after an accident, set up an appointment with your primary care provider. They can properly assess any worries you may have after your collision.

— Dominic Hernandez

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