Trauma is a serious injury or
to the body. It is caused by a physical force, such as violence or an accident. The injury may be complicated by psychiatric, behavioral, and social factors. This can cause the injuries to be greater than just physical ones.
Brain Trauma from Whiplash
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Some causes of trauma include: Motor vehicle accidentsFallsNear-drowningGunshotsFires and burnsStabbingOther physical assaultFire, flood, earthquake, lightening, or other natural disasterContact sportsElectrical shockAnimal attacksExplosionsPlane crashes
Trauma is more likely if you are aged 1-44 years. Other factors that may increase the chance of trauma include: Not wearing a seatbelt in a vehicleDrinking alcohol and driving a vehicle or boatCell phone use (especially texting), or other distractions while drivingImproper use or storage of firearmsUnsafe home conditions that can lead to falls, such as unsecured area rugs, wet floors, cords running across the middle of the room, or poorly lit halls and stairwellsNot wearing proper protective equipment while playing sports, or while working with or using dangerous equipment (like a chainsaw)Improper use of dangerous machinery, such as powertools, chainsaws, lawn mowers, or snowblowersFighting with fists or weapons, especially after drinking alcoholImproper car seat use that results in a child falling from an elevated surface, or the occupied car seat flipping or rollingNot using smoke detectors or not changing dead batteries in a timely mannerSwimming alone or without previous lessonsNot watching your child while they are swimmingNot using lifejackets while swimming or boatingImproper fencing or locks around swimming poolsApproaching an animal unsafely or aggressively
Symptoms depend on the type or extent of injuries. Symptoms may include: Pain, with or without swellingExternal (visible) or internal (not visible) bleedingBreathing problemsHeadache, nausea, vomiting, amnesia, or altered mental statusVisible deformity, which may occur with a fractureLoss of feeling and/or muscle strengthChanges in bowel or bladder function, including inability to urinate or have a bowel movementLoss of consiousnessComa
In addition, the following psychological effects may occur in response to trauma: Anxiety, numbness, dissociation and/or inappropriate calmnessAnger and frustrationAcute stress disorder such as distress, memories, avoidance, and numbing in the months after traumaDepressionPost-traumatic symptoms and/or disorderAvoidance and public anxiety
A medical team will assess your symptoms and medical history. A thorough physical exam will be done. It may include a chest exam, abdomen and pelvic exam, exam of extremities, and a neurologic exam. A psychological exam and/or suicide assessment may also be done.
Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with blood tests.
Your vital signs may be tested. This can be done with: Blood pressure measurementRespiratory monitoringElectrocardiogram
Imaging tests can be used to evaluate the injured area. These may include: Chest x-rayAbdominal ultrasoundCT scanSpine x-rayAngiography
Treatment depends on the cause, severity, or location of the injury.
Severe injuries need to be immobilized to reduce the risk of further damage. Once this is complete, an assessment for life-threatening injuries or complications will be done. Stabilizing an injury may require: Splinting or bracingA breathing tube for a blocked airwayIV fluidsMechanical ventilation to take over breathingNutritional supportAdmission to the hospital for monitoring
Some injuries may require surgery. This may be done immediately to sustain life or at a later time to repair damage. Examples of surgery may include: Vascular surgery to control bleedingNeurosurgery to repair the spinal cord, brain, and/or nervesCreating a tracheostomy to restore or improve breathing—this may be temporary or permanentRepairing or connecting broken bones with wires, screws, or platesReconstructive or plastic surgeryDebridement (removing dead tissue) and skin grafting for severe burnsCreating a urostomy or colostomy to restore bladder and bowel function—this may be temporary or permanent
Some procedures, such as fracture repairs, may be delayed until swelling resolves.
For some, recovery may be short (days or weeks). For others, it may take a long time (months or years). This may include the use of assisted devices like a cane or wheelchair. Severe injuries, especially to the head, neck, and spinal cord, may require short- or long-term (or permanent) rehabilitation.
In general, recovery and rehabilitation includes one or more of the following: Physical therapy—to maintain or regain as much movement as possibleOccupational therapy—to assist in everyday tasks and self-careRespiratory therapy—to assist with breathingSpeech and swallowing therapyPsychological therapy—to improve mood and decrease depression
To help reduce your chance of trauma: Always use seat belts.Never drive or operate any equipment while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Certain medications can be dangerous as well.Do not use a cell phone while driving.Keep poisons, medication, and cleaning supplies locked up. Keep them away from small children.Teach children to swim. Teach all family members about water safety.Never swim alone, always swim with a buddy.Develop a fire safety plan.Make sure all alarm and fire equipment is up to date such as smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms, and fire extinguishers.If you have firearms in the house, make sure they are kept unloaded. Keep them in a locked location.Wear helmets while biking.Wear the right safety equipment for all sports and recreation activities.Wear appropriate protective gear when using power tools.Help prevent falls in the home. Install night-lights, grab bars, and hand rails.Avoid putting yourself at risk for an accident, violence, or other physical trauma.
Approach to the trauma patient. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/injuries;-poisoning/approach-to-the-trauma-patient/approach-to-the-trauma-patient. Updated July 2015. Accessed December 28, 2015.
Majou R, Farmer A. ABC of psychological medicine: trauma. BMJ. 2002;325(7361):426-429.
Trauma fact sheet. National Institute of General Medical Sciences website. Available at:
Updated November 2012. Accessed December 28, 2015.
Last reviewed December 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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