Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, was first brought to public attention as a problem suffered by war veterans who had been in combat. But medical professionals soon came to realize that anyone can suffer PTSD after any traumatic experience, including car accidents.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which is responsible for government-sponsored research on mental health and mental disorders, says PTSD develops after a terrifying ordeal that involves physical harm or the threat of physical harm. It does not have to be direct harm.

“The person who develops PTSD may have been the one who was harmed, the harm may have happened to a loved one, or the person may have witnessed a harmful event that happened to loved ones or strangers,” the NIMH says.

The symptoms of PTSD fall into three broad categories:

  • Re-living the experience, such as having flashbacks, nightmares or extreme reaction to later events that trigger memories of the traumatic event
  • Avoidance of activities, places, thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event, or an overall avoidance of people, activities or public places
  • Increased arousal, such as constantly feeling tense or on edge, or being easily startled. This may include difficulty sleeping, and/or experiencing angry outbursts or other mood swings.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons cites a study in which many patients who experienced an orthopaedic trauma, such as a bone fracture from a vehicle accident or a gunshot wound, developed symptoms of PTSD despite the fact that the physical injury healed properly.

Of the nearly 600 patients in the study, the AAOS says, more than half had symptoms of PTSD. Among patients injured in vehicle crashes, 57 percent developed symptoms of PTSD. A person who was walking and struck by a car had an even higher risk of developing symptoms of PTSD. Two out of three people involved in vehicle-pedestrian collisions had symptoms of PTSD.

Patients in this study who had been injured more recently were less likely to have symptoms of PTSD than those who had been injured some time ago, the AAOS says.

Prior to the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the wars that followed, traffic accidents had become the leading cause of PTSD since the Vietnam War, according to a 1999 report by American Family Physician.

This article, entitled “Post-traumatic Stress Reactions Following Motor Vehicle Accidents,” says that an estimated 9 percent of survivors of serious accidents develop significant post-traumatic stress symptoms and that many other survivors have PTSD-like reactions.

Risk factors for PTSD after a car accident include:

  • A serious accident
  • Severe injuries or death in the car accident
  • Perception of having been in a life-threatening situation
  • Intrusive memory immediately following the event (flashback)
  • Difficulty driving or traveling in a car after the accident
  • History of prior traumatic experiences
  • History of underlying psychiatric disorder.

Family Doctor points out that feelings of shock, anger, nervousness, fear or guilt after a car accident are normal reactions. It’s when strong feelings like these stay with a person for a long time and start to get in the way of everyday life that it is a problem that might be diagnosed as PTSD.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says accident victims can help themselves by:

  • Understanding that their symptoms are normal, especially right after a traumatic experience
  • Sticking to their usual daily routine and not avoiding situations, people or places that spur memories of the accident
  • Taking time to resolve day-to-day conflicts so they do not add to stress
  • Taking time to relax and to participate in leisure and recreation activities they enjoy
  • Turning to family, friends or clergy to talk about their experiences and feelings.

Contact a medical professional if your symptoms do not subside on their own within three months or if your symptoms are severe enough during the first month to interfere a lot with your family, friends and job, the CDC says. Also consider advice from a firm like Sansone & Lauber, who specialize in motor vehicle cases.

At the link above, the CDC has more coping techniques, additional information about PTSD and resources for more information and support.