Identifying the Signs of Car Accident Head Injuries and What to Do Next

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Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are among the most common car accident injuries. Car accidents are a leading cause of TBIs, second only to falls. They are responsible for nearly 300,000 of the 1.7 million TBIs that occur annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Why are traumatic brain injuries so common after a car crash? Unlike other areas of the body, which remain strapped to a seat during a car crash, the neck and head can move freely. When the momentum inside the vehicle quickly shifts, the force of impact can cause the head to move forward and strike a hard surface like the steering wheel or broken glass.

A car accident head injury can cause memory loss, hearing and vision issues, and even permanent brain damage that can drastically change an accident victim’s life. The repercussions of a head injury, including steep medical bills and lost wages, can impact the victim’s family for years to come. If you’ve suffered a head injury or TBI in a motor vehicle accident, this is what you must know.

When Should You Seek Medical Attention After a Car Accident Head Injury?

If you have suffered an injury to the head in a car accident, seek medical attention right away. This is true even if you don’t think the injury is serious. Lack of treatment may cause certain car crash symptoms to worsen, so it’s critical to seek medical care as soon as possible after a car accident.

If you or someone you know exhibits any of the following symptoms after an accident, they may have suffered a head or brain injury.

Brain Injury Symptoms

A car accident head injury can have several symptoms that range from mild to severe and distracting to debilitating. Some brain injury symptoms may appear immediately after the accident, whereas others can take days or weeks to appear.

Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Symptoms

The symptoms of a mild traumatic brain injury, such as a concussion or contusion, include:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue or drowsiness
  • Dizziness or loss of balance
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • Blurred vision
  • Temporary memory loss (amnesia)
  • Temporary loss of consciousness (a few seconds to a few minutes)
  • Sensitivity to light or sound
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Mood changes
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Insomnia or difficulty sleeping

Moderate to Severe Brain Injury Symptoms

What are the signs of a serious head injury? Compared to a mild traumatic brain injury, the signs and symptoms of a moderate to severe brain injury are often much more intense and can last for much longer. Symptoms of a severe injury, such as a diffuse axonal injury, include:

  • Loss of consciousness (several minutes to several hours)
  • Severe headache or headache that worsens over time
  • Repeated vomiting or nausea
  • Loss of coordination
  • Profound disorientation (not remembering dates or names)
  • Dilation of one or both eye pupils
  • Weakness or numbness in fingers and toes
  • Clear fluids draining from the nose or ears
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Inability to awaken from sleep
  • Coma and other disorders of consciousness

Brain Injury Symptoms in Children

Children aged 0 to 4 years and adolescents aged 15 to 19 years are more likely to sustain a traumatic brain injury than accident victims aged 20 to 55. Nearly half a million emergency room visits for traumatic brain injuries are made each year by children alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Brain injury symptoms can be different in children, and young ones may not be able to communicate how they’re feeling. It is essential to monitor children involved in accidents for the following signs of injury:

  • Drowsiness
  • Inability to pay attention
  • Unusual irritability or changes in mood
  • Persistent crying with an inability to be consoled
  • Loss of interest in activities or toys
  • Change in eating or nursing habits
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • Seizures

What is a Traumatic Brain Injury?

A traumatic brain injury is a type of head trauma caused by a sudden blow, bump, or jolt to the head. The force of impact temporarily disrupts the normal function of the brain and can cause loss of consciousness, memory loss, and physical impairment. The initial event that causes brain trauma, such as the impact of a motor vehicle accident, is known as the primary injury.

A primary injury can damage specific parts of the brain, injure the entire brain, or cause a fracture in the skull that protects the brain. The initial injury forces the brain to move violently within the skull, which causes bruising, bleeding, and tearing of nerve cells. A secondary injury occurs once the brain swells from the primary injury, limiting blood flow to the brain.

Oftentimes, the secondary injury is much worse than the primary injury — which is why an accident victim must receive immediate medical attention. Of the estimated 1.7 million people that sustain a TBI annually, 1.365 million are treated and released from the emergency room, 275,000 are hospitalized, and 80,000 to 90,000 experience permanent brain damage.

An estimated 5.3 million people currently struggle with a long-term disability from a car accident head injury. While these injuries may not be obvious to the naked eye, long-term implications of a TBI can cause cognitive, emotional, motor, and sensory impairments. These impairments can  profoundly impact social relationships, like employment and relationships with loved ones.

What Causes TBIs and Head Injuries in Car Accidents?

The primary cause of car accident head injuries such as a TBI is a sudden blow to the skull. An accident victim can forcefully collide with the steering wheel or dashboard during a car crash, which can cause soft brain tissue to slam against the hard, bony skull. The momentum of a crash can also cause objects inside the vehicle to become projectiles that can penetrate and damage the skull.

Aside from a bump to the head, there are a few other common causes of a car accident head injury that don’t involve the head at all. For instance, studies show that whiplash — a neck sprain that can tear critical nerve fibers — causes brain injury in over 20% of cases. A more recent study correlated traumatic nerve cell tears in the neck and back with traumatic injuries in brain tissue.

Types of Traumatic Brain Injuries and Other Car Accident Head Injuries

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“Traumatic brain injury” is the umbrella term for head trauma after a car crash, but there isn’t just one type of traumatic brain injury.  TBIs and other head injuries caused by motor vehicle accidents are typically classified into three tiers to demonstrate severity. Each is characterized by a different set of symptoms, such as loss of consciousness and whether it was an open head injury.

  1. Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) or Concussion: A mild TBI is a type of minor brain trauma characterized by headache, temporary memory loss, and short-term balance and concentration issues. These injuries heal within one to two months.
  2. Moderate Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post-Concussion Syndrome (PCS): A moderate TBI is a more serious brain trauma that can cause symptoms for a few months to a year. Concussion symptoms that do not heal within six months are known as post-concussion syndrome.
  3. Severe Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): A severe TBI is the most serious type of brain trauma. It can cause loss of consciousness for days or weeks and can result in permanent brain damage. These severe injuries are classified as closed when the brain moves inside the skull, or penetrating when an object pierces the skull and damages brain tissue.

Take a look at the five most common car accident head injuries.


A concussion is the most common type of head injury after a crash and is considered a mild TBI. It occurs when the brain forcefully slams against the inside of the skull due to a sudden motion, such as a vehicle collision. Symptoms from a concussion typically last for four to six weeks after a car accident. If symptoms last longer than six weeks, the injury is referred to as post-concussion syndrome.

The most common  concussion symptoms are a brief loss of consciousness, temporary memory loss, headache, and dizziness. Other concussion symptoms include nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), and blurred vision.

Contusions (Coup & Contrecoup)

A cerebral contusion is a type of traumatic brain injury characterized by the bruising of brain tissue. It’s often caused by a sudden blow to the head, such as when an accident victim slams against the steering wheel during an auto accident. A contusion can be classified as either a coup or contrecoup injury, which is French for “blow” or “counterblow.”

A coup injury is a bruise directly under the area of impact, or where the blow struck first. A contrecoup injury is a bruise on the opposite side of the skull, which is why it is known as a counterblow. The bruise in a contrecoup injury is not caused by the initial blow, but from the force of the brain slamming against the other side of the skull.


A coup-contrecoup injury is a type of cerebral contusion characterized by two bruises — one on the side of the skull that experienced impact and one on the other side of the brain. For instance, an accident victim can suffer a coup from striking the steering wheel with the front of their skull, then a contrecoup from the force of their brain slamming against the back of their skull.

This type of TBI results in both sides of the brain being damaged, which can cause swelling or bleeding inside the brain. A coup-contrecoup is common in violent motor vehicle accidents, such as a rollover collision.

Penetrating Head Injury

A penetrating injury is a type of traumatic head injury that occurs when an external object penetrates the skull. Classified as an open head injury, a penetrating injury can occur if objects inside the vehicle become projectiles during the crash or if the skull fractures during impact.

Penetrating head injuries can cause heavy blood loss and can be life-threatening. It’s essential to seek medical attention as soon as possible or risk death or potential permanent brain damage.

Diffuse Axonal Injury

A diffuse axonal injury (DAI) is characterized by damage to axons, nerve fibers that send signals from one brain cell to another. This severe injury occurs when the brain moves violently inside the skull and stretches or tears individual nerve fibers.

When nerve fibers are torn, the brain cannot transmit information between brain cells, causing memory loss, loss of consciousness, and other cognitive symptoms. This type of head injury is common in high-speed accidents and requires immediate medical attention.

How are TBIs Diagnosed?

A traumatic brain injury can only be diagnosed by a medical professional. To seek an accurate diagnosis, visit the emergency room or your family physician as soon as possible for testing. A physician will analyze your symptoms, conduct a test to determine your level of consciousness, and use certain machinery to look at different areas of the brain.

Typical diagnosis for a traumatic brain injury will leverage a combination of these three techniques.

  1. Glasgow Coma Score (GCS): A 15-point test to grade an accident victim’s level of consciousness and ability to respond to basic questions and physical stimulation. A mild TBI is assigned a score of 13 to 15, a moderate TBI is assigned a score of 9 to 12, and a severe TBI is assigned a score of 8 and below.
  2. Computed Tomography (CT) Scan: A noninvasive type of X-ray that captures images of different parts of the brain to scan for skull fractures, bleeding in the brain, and blood clots.
  3. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): A noninvasive type of imaging that uses radiofrequency waves to capture subtle changes to the brain anatomy that are too small to display on a CT scan.

How are TBIs Treated?

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What are the treatments for a car accident head injury? Medical treatment varies depending on the severity of the injury, and which parts of the brain were damaged. Mild TBIs typically require rest and over-the-counter medication to alleviate symptoms like headache or dizziness. Moderate to severe TBIs may require surgery to alleviate bleeding or swelling in the brain.

Treatment for serious traumatic brain injuries may include some of the following.

  • Brain Oxygen Monitor: A small tube is entered through a hole in the skull and positioned into brain tissue to measure and maintain the oxygen level and temperature inside the brain.
  • Hypertonic Saline: A type of medication is administered to control pressure within the brain by drawing excess water into blood vessels to release pressure on brain cells.
  • Anti-Seizure Medication: Another type of medication is administered to prevent seizures in those with moderate to severe brain injuries the first week after injury.
  • Craniotomy Surgery: A hole is cut in the skull so surgeons can repair brain damage such as a skull fracture, blood clots, or burst blood vessels.

Recovering from Car Accident Head Injuries

Recovering from a car accident head injury is long, difficult, and expensive. These serious injuries require expert medical care to heal completely, and your insurance may not cover all of your medical bills. While your personal injury keeps you out of work, your family members and loved ones may struggle under the weight of lost wages and property damage from the crash.

While some accident victims may heal in a few weeks, other victims require months or even years to fully recover. 5.3 million men, women, and children are currently living with a permanent TBI-related disability, like facial paralysis, loss of vision, and hearing loss. The financial cost associated with TBI-related disabilities, medical treatment, and lost wages is upwards of $37.8 billion per year.

Hiring an Attorney After Suffering a Car Accident Head Injury

If you’ve recently suffered a car accident head injury, now is the time to reach out to a qualified personal injury attorney. An injury attorney understands how serious injuries can impact accident victims’ quality of life, finances, and relationships with loved ones. An attorney can help you seek the compensation you deserve for head trauma injury treatment, lost wages, and more.

A personal injury lawyer will help you itemize all the expenses you’ve incurred due to your injury, like travel to doctor’s appointments, vehicle repair costs, and medical home care. Then, an attorney will argue your case and negotiate with the insurance company (or file a lawsuit) to help you receive compensation.

Do not struggle under the weight of medical bills and physical pain alone. Contact a personal injury attorney today for a free consultation about your car accident head injury. The reliable team at David Bryant Law is ready to take your call. Reach out today to get started.

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David G. Bryant is certified to practice in all state courts in Kentucky, and federal courts in the Eastern and Western districts of Kentucky, Southern District of New York, Southern District of West Virginia, Northern District of Ohio, Middle District of Tennessee, and Western District of Pennsylvania. He is licensed to practice before the United States Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.