According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), more than 38,000 people died in fatal car crashes in the United States in 2020. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that these numbers will continue to rise in the coming years. Even if you survive a car accident, your chances of suffering a traumatic brain injury (TBI) are surprisingly high: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that car accidents are one of the leading causes of TBIs, just behind falls and firearms-related incidents.
Traumatic brain injuries can show up weeks after the accident, and some people may not make the connection between the accident and their headaches, especially if the headaches are mild. While getting a solitary headache after a car accident may not be a cause for concern, a dramatic increase in frequency or severity may be an indicator that you should see a reliable neurologist in NYC.
Common Reasons for Getting a Headache After a Car Accident
One of the most common questions our neurologists get is, “Why do I have a headache after a car accident?”. Headaches can be the result of several factors, including high blood pressure, stress, or a sign of neurological damage after a motor vehicle accident. A specialist will examine your medical history to help you determine and treat the cause of your headaches.
Neurologists use the term “post-traumatic headaches” to refer to any headache caused by trauma to the head or neck. These headaches can originate from pain in the neck, muscle contractions or spasms, or a direct injury to the brain itself. These headaches may not appear for days or weeks after the trauma, which is why so many patients don’t make the connection between the headache and the incident.
A concussion is the result of damage to the brain’s soft tissue. Under normal circumstances, your brain has a protective barrier of cerebrospinal fluid that acts as a cushion against any movement. However, a sudden jolt can cause the brain to hit the skull wall, resulting in trauma. Signs of a concussion include headaches, nausea, light sensitivity, confusion, dizziness, slurred speech, and memory loss.
Muscle Strain Headache
These headaches are from muscles in the upper neck, head, or upper back spasming, causing deferred pain as a headache. Most muscle strain headaches are due to stress and tension in these muscles, but they can also occur if you injure your muscles during a car accident.
Other signs of muscle strain or injury may be a decreased range of motion, tenderness, and swelling. The good news is that muscle strain headaches are not a sign of a traumatic brain injury and will tend to disappear as your muscles heal.
Whiplash injuries are one of the most common car accident-related injuries, especially during rear-end crashes. Whiplash occurs when your head is violently thrown forward and then back, putting extensive strain on your neck ligaments, joints, and soft tissue. Typically, you’ll start to feel the pain from whiplash several days after the accident.
Fracture headaches are due to a neck or skull fracture, and unlike other headaches are intensive and debilitating. These headaches will typically appear directly after the car accident and will only fade once the fracture heals.
Pinched Nerve Headache
Pinched nerves are a common complaint after car accidents, due to the spinal compression or disc herniation that pinches on the upper neck nerve roots. Pinched nerves may present as a headache after a car accident, or as tingling or numbness in the base of your skull.
Delayed Headache After a Car Accident: What You Need To Know
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), vehicle accidents account for two million injuries yearly.
The fact that you feel okay after a car accident doesn’t mean you’re unharmed. While most car accident injuries become visible almost immediately, certain injuries can stay hidden, only manifesting days or weeks after.
Therefore, it’s possible to experience delayed headaches after a car accident. As a leading neurologist in NYC, we see some of these cases each year. Learn more about delayed headaches after a car accident below, what to do, and your treatment options.
What Is the Cause of a Delayed Headache After a Car Accident?
Headaches tend to follow a car accident because of whiplash or head trauma. In whiplash, the ligaments and muscles suffer strain. Head trauma may damage nerves, tissues, and blood vessels, causing discomfort and pain and leading to the headaches you experience.
The headaches may not appear immediately.
Following a car accident, your body will release lots of endorphins and adrenaline to help you cope with the situation. However, these chemicals can mask physiological pain for a few hours. As the chemicals wear off, you’ll start to feel the swelling and bruising from the accident a lot more.
In most cases, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes for the adrenaline and endorphins to wear off and for headaches and other symptoms to appear. But it’s not uncommon for the symptoms to remain hidden for long periods. A delayed headache could be the first sign of something more serious.
You may also experience delayed headaches if the injury to the head or neck was mild at the time of the accident. However, the injury could worsen without treatment and cause the late onset of headaches days or weeks after the accident.
What To Do When You Experience Delayed Headaches After a Car Accident
If you start experiencing delayed headaches after your car accident, you should receive medical care quickly to prevent severe complications. Headache is a symptom of many dangerous conditions, including traumatic brain injury (TBI), with a rate of 30% to 90% exhibiting a delayed headache as a tell-tale symptom.
Here’s what you should do:
Don’t Wait It Out
Popping some painkillers and waiting for the headache to subside is not a good idea. It will only mask the pain for a while before returning. Meanwhile, the cause of the pain will only continue to worsen.
Document Your Symptoms
Do you have symptoms beyond headaches? Some people may experience dizziness, confusion, sound sensitivity, some form of cognitive decline, and more. Documenting these symptoms will make diagnosing your condition easier.
Visit Your Doctor Immediately
When it comes to head injuries, time is of the essence. Every hour you delay is an hour that could have been used to prevent irreversible damage.
The sooner you get to your doctor, the sooner they can diagnose the underlying cause of the headaches and provide the necessary treatment to get you back to excellent health.
What Is the Treatment for Delayed Headache After a Car Accident?
Medical professionals recommend medications, physical therapy, and home remedies for treating delayed headaches after confirmatory tests to confirm the absence of underlying conditions. The treatment path will differ if tests and scans show brain injury or other types of injuries.
The medications you receive for headaches without severe head injury will depend on the severity. They may recommend medications for migraine headaches like standard nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). They may also recommend triptans.
If the headache persists, the doctor may recommend other types of medications to prevent the onset of other conditions.
According to a study published in The Journal of Headache and Pain, physical therapy can help alleviate headaches and pain due to car accidents. The following are some effective types of physical therapy for such cases:
- Stretching exercises
- Spinal mobilization
- Spinal manipulation
- Myofascial release
Home remedies that may help prevent delayed headaches include the following:
- Sleeping regularly
- Engaging in more aerobic exercises like stretching and walking
- Quitting alcohol and caffeinated beverages
- Sticking to your recommended medication.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Long Can Delayed Headaches After Car Accidents Remain Hidden?
Delayed headaches can appear days, weeks, or months after a car accident. Several factors may influence the timeline, including the type of injuries you suffered during the accident and your activity levels since that time. It’s possible to exacerbate minor injuries through physical exertion.
How Long Will the Headaches Last?
Delayed headaches after car accidents typically resolve within weeks of beginning treatment barring any severe underlying conditions. However, it’s not uncommon for symptoms to take much longer to disappear completely.
Do I Have To Live With the Headache Forever?
You don’t have to live with the headache forever if you stay on the course of treatment.
Can Delayed Headaches After Car Accidents Point to More Serious Injury?
Delayed headaches after car accidents can point to more serious injury, especially if you suffered a blow to the head during the accident.
The headaches may indicate a serious medical condition that has eluded medical professionals, such as TBI, closed-head injury, concussion, and more. According to the American Headache Society, 95% of vehicle accident victims with a concussion will experience headaches.
Book an Appointment With Your Doctor for a Thorough Diagnosis
Different head injuries may occur after a motor vehicle accident. Fractures, whiplash, and head trauma can cause headaches to varying degrees. The injuries and the accompanying headaches may not appear immediately after the accident.
As soon as they appear, you should see a car accident neurologist immediately for a closer look at your head and to rule out severe injuries.
At Medical Clinics of New York City, we perform diagnostic tests for patients who have delayed headaches after car accidents and recommend a course of treatment.
Our doctors accept most insurance plans, including workers’ compensation, no-fault, and PIP (personal injury protection). Same-day appointments may be available. Contact us today!
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What Is a Neurologist and How They Can Help
A neurologist is a doctor who specializes in the brain, spine, and nervous system and understands how the brain functions and how TBIs can affect the body as a whole. Car accidents generate extreme forces that can jolt the brain against the skull, injure neck and back muscles, ligaments, and tendons, and affect the brain stem, which can lead to signs of neurological trauma that a neurologist can diagnose and treat.
During your first visit, the neurologist will run a series of tests and ask about your symptoms to diagnose your condition. They will also schedule a follow-up visit to check for any delayed symptoms, as TBIs can sometimes take weeks to show up. After they make the diagnosis, your neurologist will offer advice on pain management and develop a long-term treatment plan. Treatment plans tend to have three aims: to prevent your condition from getting worse, to manage pain, and to help you recover from your injuries.
Most neurologists will recommend a combination of physical therapy, medication, and other treatment methods to get you on the road to recovery. If you’ve experienced a headache after a car accident, seeing a neurologist is an excellent idea to prevent your headaches from getting worse.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long should a headache last after a car accident?
There is no definite period for how long a headache should last after a car accident. Some people don’t experience any headaches, while others may develop headaches weeks or months after their crash.
Is it normal to get headaches after a car accident?
It is relatively normal to get headaches after a car accident, as they’re one of the more common symptoms. However, if they persist or get worse, make sure to visit a doctor to rule out the possibility of a traumatic brain injury.
Should I get my head checked after a car accident?
You should get your head checked after a car accident, as post-traumatic headaches can indicate serious medical conditions. Most doctors will check your head and neck for fractures and breaks as part of their normal post-accident medical care process.
If you’re unable to sleep after a head injury or have developed a severe headache after a car accident, it’s time to visit a specialist.
Our doctors accept most insurance plans, including workers’ compensation, no-fault, and PIP (personal injury protection. Same-day appointments may be available. Contact us to schedule one today!