You’re on the way home from work when a car drifts over the center line and into your lane. The driver is looking down, texting away on his or her cellphone.
You honk your horn and swerve, and it feels like everything goes in slow motion. The other driver looks up and tries to swerve away, but there’s no time. That car still clips your vehicle, sending you spinning out of control. You sail into oncoming traffic, where you’re hit by two more cars that had nothing to do with that initial accident.
After the crash, you get out of your car, heart pounding, and go sit on the side of the road. You walk over to the ambulance when it arrives. You talk to the EMTs and tell them you don’t need to go to the hospital. You count yourself very lucky that you escaped serious injury.
The next day, you wake up and you can barely move. You call 911 and they rush you to a hospital, where a stunned doctor tells you that you have a serious spinal injury. It’s going to require surgery and months of rehab.
Think that sounds unlikely? It’s far more common than you may think. In the chaos of an accident, people often don’t realize that they’re actually injured, but they notice when things calm down. There are a few reasons, two of which are adrenaline and distraction.
Your body’s flight or fight syndrome is very good. If you’re hurt, adrenaline and the hormone epinephrine flood your system. Your heart rate increases and blood pressure goes up. The body is simply trying to help you fight off the threat or run away from the threat. It can give you what is often called a “runner’s high.”
In the conditions that syndrome is intended to help — combat, for instance — it can be very helpful. In a car accident, it can mask your pain so you think you’re fine until some time goes by, your body returns to its normal state, and that pain comes flooding back.
For instance, one doctor met with two patients after an accident on the subway. Both of them managed to get off the train and walk away from the crash before coming in for treatment. They were both stunned to learn that they’d literally broken their necks in the crash. The doctor noted that the adrenaline rush blocked the pain for hours, but, as things settled down, they started to feel it.
Other injuries can be distracting, covering up serious injuries with the pain of more minor ones. For instance, one man had a broken neck and a broken wrist. The wrist hurt so badly that he couldn’t feel anything else and had no idea he’d broken his neck.
It’s important for those who get involved in motor vehicle accidents to understand that they may not notice injuries for hours or even days. That does not mean they did not get hurt in the crash.