Why Pain Sustained from an Auto Accident is Often Delayed

A car crash can cause a wide range of injuries in the blink of an eye, but it’s not usual for pain, injury, and dysfunction to emerge hours, days, or even weeks following an accident. Learn all about delayed-onset pain and why it happens.

Getting into a motor vehicle crash can leave you feeling shaken and out of sorts, but unless you have an obvious traumatic injury like a skin laceration or a bone fracture, you may not feel any pain or discomfort. It’s a common scenario, and it’s perfectly normal. 

It’s also perfectly normal for pain, injury, and dysfunction to emerge hours, days, or even weeks following an auto accident: It’s called delayed-onset pain, and it’s a frequent effect of the kind of physical trauma that can occur in a collision.

At The Rehab Docs in Daniel Island, South Carolina, we understand how a car accident can impact your body. Our seasoned pain and injury experts combine integrative care, chiropractic medicine, and physical therapy to help you resolve your pain and restore your health. 

Your body’s natural fight-or-flight response

Automobile accidents can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Luckily, many roadway collisions aren’t too serious, allowing the drivers and passengers involved to walk away with only minor injuries or no apparent injuries at all. 

High force, hidden trauma

But even if you felt mostly protected by the surrounding structure of your vehicle, enormous amounts of force get transferred in a collision, often in the blink of an eye. Some of that force passes through and acts on your body, causing visible injury — or hidden trauma.

Adrenaline and endorphins

When your body is subjected to tremendous amounts of force in just a few short seconds, it tries to protect itself by releasing a sudden surge of adrenaline. This “fight-or-flight” response provides several protective benefits in high-stress circumstances, including:

  • Dilated blood vessels and airways
  • Increased flow of oxygen to the brain
  • Improved strength and performance 
  • Super-charged energy and stamina 
  • Heightened visual and auditory awareness
  • Reduced or blocked pain sensations

This same fight-or-flight mechanism floods your system with calming endorphins, too, helping you stay calm and in control as you react to the situation around you. Commonly known as the brain’s “natural pain reliever,” endorphin hormones also affect the way you process stress and feel pain.

Delayed-onset pain after an auto accident

In the aftermath of a stressful physical event like a car accident, your body’s fight-or-flight response gradually tapers off — but your adrenaline and endorphin levels can remain high for an hour or longer, completely masking any pain symptoms you might otherwise have.

Inertia-inflicted damage

Once your body settles back down, you may start to feel pain or stiffness in certain parts — or you may not. In many cases, it takes a day or two or even longer to feel the effects of soft tissue damage caused by the kind of extreme inertia changes that happen in a car crash.

When your car is stopped short by the sudden force of an impact, your body briefly continues moving through space at the same rate until your seatbelt, airbag, or another surface barrier stops you short, too.

This abrupt change in momentum can cause soft tissue damage at points of contact, such as where your body strains against your seatbelt; it can also cause deeper soft tissue damage in the body parts that “absorb” extreme inertia changes the most. 

Whiplash and other delayed injuries

This often includes your neck, which may be jerked forwards, backwards, or sideways by the impact while your head briefly continues traveling in the same direction it was heading. Known as whiplash, this traumatic injury is one of the most common sources of delayed-onset pain following an accident. 

Other symptoms that can emerge many hours or days following an auto accident include:

  • Back, neck, or shoulder pain
  • Neck stiffness; headaches
  • Blurry vision and/or dizziness
  • Localized swelling and pain
  • Numbness in your extremities
  • Decreased range of motion 
  • Difficulty focusing or sleeping

Although it’s inflicted in the blink of an eye, the soft tissue damage that triggers these delayed symptoms often develops slowly. Pain typically emerges once inflammation has set in.

Secondary injuries and pain

Sometimes, delayed pain following an accident is the result of a secondary injury, or an injury that happens because of trauma that was sustained during the impact. This is sometimes the case with spinal injuries — especially those that affect your intervertebral discs. 

These discs cushion your vertebral bones and facilitate motion in your spine. When one of them is stressed or slightly damaged in an accident, it may be more likely to tear, bulge, or rupture as time goes on. 

Get evaluated soon after your accident

Having a comprehensive evaluation within a few days of your car accident can help you get the care you may need to fortify the healing process, support your long-term recovery, and reduce your risks of chronic pain and future complications. 

If you’ve had a car accident, Dr. Kevin BeinDr. Sam Sheppard, and the team at The Rehab Docs can help. Call 843-749-8848 today, or use our easy online booking feature to schedule a visit anytime.