What to do When You’ve Been in a Car Accident

By Jenny Rock, LMT 
Certified Advanced Rolfer®
April 2023

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there are over 6 million passenger car accidents in the US every year.  According to the National Safety Council, over 5 million people involved in such a crash will seek medical care for these injuries.  

I don’t know about you, but no one told me what to expect or what to do if (more likely WHEN) I would be in a car accident, aside from reporting it to my insurance company.  My goal here is to give you some guidance of what to do for your  body in the aftermath of any type of auto vehicle accident.  (This information will also be generally true for any type of injury.)


I’ve been treating people injured from MVAs for over 30 years, and MANY people don’t even notice pain for a few days or even weeks after the accident.  However, even without immediate pain or discomfort, you can still be injured.  EVEN IF YOU FEEL FINE, please go to the ER or a walk-in clinic as soon as possible, just to rule out big things.  Keep in mind that broken bones are not the only thing that can be injured, and soft tissue injuries don’t show up on x-rays.


Your body needs water to recover.  This is NOT the time to load up on caffeine or alcohol, this is the time to hydrate, making sure you keep your electrolyte balance in check.  Muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia, discs, bone (and more) ALL need water to heal.  The differences I see (and feel) in hydrated tissues before and after injuries are huge.  Soft tissue needs to be flexible and adaptable for both preventing injury and for healing after injury, and hydration is a crucial part of that. 


Of course, listen to your healthcare provider, and follow their directions.  Otherwise, a good basic approach to any fresh injury:  Rest, Ice,  Compress, Elevate.   REST – Unless advised otherwise by your healthcare provider (like with a concussion), get enough sleep and rest for at least a few days after the accident.  For those of you who love to exercise every day, you may want to just back off any heavy exercise for a few days, just to make sure that you’re ok.  Gentle or low impact types of exercise can be helpful, like walking or yoga.  This isn’t the time to keep up heavy endurance or weight training.  The golf games and marathon training can wait.  I treat people every day who “pushed” themselves too soon after an injury, and made injuries worse, and drastically increased recovery time.  Doing what you did before the accident could be pushing your body.  Your body is different now, please honor that and take it slowly. 

ICE – Pain and inflammation are both reduced with ice.  It’s best to use it for 15-20 minutes per area with a 30+ minute break, repeating as many times per day as you can.  I’ve been known to use a bag of frozen cut corn or frozen peas when I can’t get ahold of ice. Leaving cold packs on for too long can have adverse effects, so keep it to 20 minutes.

Inflammation is a normal and healthy response to injury, so having some inflammation is necessary for healing during the acute phase of any injury. Completely eliminating inflammation can slow your progress, as it’s only problematic if it lasts too long.  

Medications and supplements used to reduce inflammation and pain are stronger and longer lasting than ice.  This means that reductions in either pain or inflammation that these compounds trigger can lead you to think that you’ve recovered, when you actually haven’t yet.  This leads to people to overusing injured areas, causing re-injury at worst, and slow healing at best.  Please use these products according to your healthcare practitioner’s guidelines, and hopefully there’s a plan to not use them much.  Since ice is a short-lived anti-inflammatory and pain reducer, it’s safe and is less likely to leave you with a sense of complete recovery prematurely, so the negative downstream effects are mitigated.

COMPRESS – Using compression to injured areas can help once you’re ruled out any contraindication not to do that.  This is a reason to be assessed by a healthcare practitioner, and not just going by your own feelings or beliefs about your body.   Compression can look like Ace bandages or something similar, or even compression garments.  Compression helps with reduction of inflammation and can even sometimes help with pain reduction.   

ELEVATE – When possible, it’s good to elevate the injured area above the heart.  This means that if your knee hits the dashboard and is hurting, putting your foot on the coffee table while you sit on the couch is NOT elevation.  If you can lay down on the floor and put your leg on the couch, that is elevation.  Of course, elevate as much as you can since it’s better than not elevating at all, just try for elevation above the heart.   


After an auto accident your nervous system will be rattled, and that will impact your emotional state.  Please be sure to get help with that, too.  It’s easy to focus on the physical, whether fixing the car or getting medical care for a broken bone.  But your emotional state is equally important, maybe more important.  If you aren’t taking care of your emotional health you will be less effective in all cognitive capacities, including organizing the logistics of your life around your new reality.  Ask for help; friends, family, or professionals. 


You never know what you’ll need later on, and sadly I’ve seen too many people get screwed over because they didn’t keep good records.  

·      Get medical care – I know, I already said this, but it’s worth repeating.  I’ve seen cases fall apart because no medical care was sought early on, therefore no one believed that they really sustained any injuries from the accident.  This serves to document the incident and clarifies all the details you will later forget.  And you WILL forget them.

Get a lawyer – I’m not a litigious person, but it’s helpful to have a lawyer, one who specializes in MVAs.  Whether or not you are the at-fault party in the accident, it’s common for the insurance company who represents the at-fault party to try to get you to settle your medical care benefits before you even know what’s going on in your body.  It is guaranteed that the insurance companies have an army of lawyers.  You will be at a disadvantage if you do not have one:

o   unresolved and unresolvable pain that can last the rest of your life

o   settling for a dollar amount that won’t cover your future medical needs

You don’t need to rush anything.  Get expert help.  I’ve seen many people need medical care but not have access to the funds they should have had, simply because they didn’t know they had options.   The lawyer will help you with this, keep everything documented, and you typically only pay them from your settlement.  Insurance companies tend to offer much higher settlements when a lawyer is involved.   Get a REPUTABLE lawyer, one that your healthcare providers can recommend, not one that you see advertised on television and billboards.   Those lawyers tend to be in it for the money they earn, and not the health of the clients they represent.