Car accident headaches cause severe head pain, disability, and decreased quality of life. Falls and car crashes are the top two causes of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) requiring hospitalization. Specifically, according to the CDC, motor vehicle accidents caused 20% of all 2014 TBI hospitalizations. Head trauma may be due to steering wheel impact, airbag deployment, or whiplash. Both reversible and irreversible changes are possible after an auto accident. Read ahead to learn the signs and symptoms of a car accident headache. Be sure to seek medical attention if you experience any of these after a car wreck.
Definitions of Traumatic Brain Injury
Any direct or indirect injury, blast or trauma to the head and neck region can cause TBI. The importance of diagnosing and treating TBI has increased greatly in recent years. Much of this stems from injuries of two populations. This includes military personnel overseas and high-impact athletes like football players. However, one must not forget about headache/TBI in the general civilian population due to car accident trauma.
Doctors classify TBI as mild, moderate, or severe. This is dependent on the severity of symptoms. A “concussion” is roughly the same thing as a “mild TBI”. Not all patients with a car accident headache receive a diagnosis of TBI. Nevertheless, it’s important to recognize the symptoms to allow diagnosis and treatment.
Types of Headaches
Let’s first talk about headaches. Headache after a motor vehicle accident can present in many different ways. The first major type of headache is a “tension headache”. This will present as head pain that is constant but dull. It will be non-pulsatile and located around your entire head. In contrast to tension headache, the other major type is “migraine headache”. This will present as not constant but rather pulsatile. Additionally, it won’t be dull but rather severe and throbbing in nature. Migraine headaches tend to affect only one side of your head and may have nausea and vomiting associated with it. Bright lights and sounds can bother you. This is called photophobia and phonophobia respectively. Use these characteristics to get a better idea of what type of headache you may be experiencing.
Head trauma signs and symptoms
Car accidents/trauma can cause more than just a headache. They can affect you in many different ways. For example, your body, emotions, behavior, and sleep may be adversely affected. Here are some common things to watch out for after a blow to the head.
Car accident headache physical symptoms
Direct trauma to the brain or skull can cause mild to severe headaches as mentioned above. Additionally, your ability to see, smell, hear or taste may be diminished. Your coordination and balance may not be as good as it was before the accident. Family members may say that you have slurred speech. Other patients may simply notice a lack of energy or increased tiredness.
In addition to the physical problems listed above, a car accident headache may affect you in other ways. Have you noticed a “brain fog” after the auto accident? This may indicate non-physical symptoms also called “cognitive” problems.
For example, these cognitive problems include decreased concentration, increased forgetfulness and confusion. You may notice memory loss of events before the incident. Alternatively, you may have trouble forming new memories after the car accident. Daily tasks for work or school may become difficult or impossible to accomplish. This is especially frustrating since auto accidents often require dealing with insurance companies and law firms/attorneys.
Lastly, your sleep cycle and emotions can be impacted negatively by a head injury. This may include an increased or decreased amount of sleep. You may notice increased irritability, mood swings, or anxiety/depression.
Seek medical attention if you experience any signs/symptoms of head injury. Your doctor will take a detailed history to establish non-physical symptoms. They may order imaging like a head CT scan to rule out structural problems. Lastly, their physical exam helps establish physical signs/symptoms of a post-traumatic headache.
Be mindful however that diagnosis of a mild TBI (aka concussion) is only the first step. Treatment and follow-up by a trained medical team is the next step. The most important treatment is rest, both physically and mentally. This includes reducing any activities that require significant physical or mental input. Because of this, you will likely have to take time off work and/or school. Over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol or Ibuprofen are used to control headache and/or neck pain. If these do not work, your doctor can prescribe additional medication to control severe pain or nausea/vomiting. You should strive for a healthy sleep schedule, a balanced diet, and lots of water intake.
In conclusion, a car accident headache is quite common after an auto crash. Be on the lookout for the physical, mental, and emotional symptoms of head trauma. Seek medical attention right away to allow for proper treatment and guidance.