PhotoIn the typical car accident that doesn't produce an apparent injury, the insurance companies for both drivers settle up, usually without much, if any, money for medical treatment.

But now researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine say in many of these cases, drivers and passengers suffer serious neck injury that goes untreated and -- more importantly -- is not compensated.

The researchers say nearly four million people in the U.S. go to hospital emergency departments for evaluation after car accidents each year. More than 90% of these individuals are discharged after evaluation.

Persistent pain

Results of the study, which followed people from eight emergency departments in four states, suggest that persistent pain is a common factor. Six weeks after their accident, more than 70% of victims reported persistent musculoskeletal pain in one or more body regions. More than one third of study participants reported pain in four or more body regions.

But the researchers say little is every done about it. It all goes back to the popular cliché of whiplash claims after a minor accident. The burden of proof is heavy indeed.

"In the U.S., if someone develops chronic neck pain or other pain after a car accident, and they go to their doctor or tell their friends, they are often not believed or are viewed with great suspicion, as if their symptoms are not real and they are just trying to sue someone," said Dr. Samuel McLean, first author of the study and associate professor of anesthesiology and emergency medicine. "Our findings indicate that persistent pain is very common among those who aren't suing, and that only a minority of those with persistent pain are engaged in litigation."


Despite the popular perception that people involve in accidents go looking for the first lawyer they can find, the authors say it rarely happens that way. Among 948 individuals enrolled in the study, only 17% had contacted a lawyer for planned litigation six weeks after their accident.

The researchers found that the majority – those who did not plan to sue – often suffered post-accident pain. Twenty-eight percent had persistent moderate or severe neck pain, 13% had widespread musculoskeletal pain in seven or more body regions, and four percent had a fibromyalgia-like syndrome.

"It is hard enough to be suffering from a persistent pain condition after trauma that is moderate or severe, and/or occurring across many body regions,” McLean said. “Unfortunately, these patients also often have to deal with the additional burden of not being believed. Hopefully the results of this study will contribute to helping doctors and the public understand that these symptoms are common, including among patients who aren't suing anyone."

What to do

This raises the issue of what you should do after an auto accident. In many instances the driver or passengers aren't immediately aware of any trauma. It may be only hours later that they feel some pain.

Therefore, if you are in an accident that causes significant damage to your vehicle, it may be prudent to be examined immediately by a doctor. There is another reason to do so.

Charles Allen, a personal injury attorney practicing in Richmond, Va., points out that in many accidents, there are two types of claims – the property damage to the vehicle and the injury to the occupants.

Damage claims often settled quickly

“In most instances, the property damage claim is resolved long before the personal injury claim,” Allen writes on his firm's blog. “Whether our client’s vehicle is repaired or considered a total loss (where the cost of repairs exceeds the retail value of the vehicle before being damaged), the property damage claim is often paid by the at-fault driver’s insurance company promptly following the collision. 

No so most personal injury claims. Often these end up in court, where Allen says evidence from the property damage claim can come into play.

“The extent of the property damage provides some helpful information about the forces of impact which caused the plaintiff’s injuries,” Allen writes.

It's another good reason you should document the accident scene with photographs. The evidence could bolster your claim if you did, in fact, suffer neck or any other type of injury. The insurance company may offer a fair settlement that covers any medical expenses. Getting prompt medical attention following an accident and thoroughly photographing the scene could increase the chances they do.

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