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Delayed Onset PTSD After Auto Accidents

This study examined a group of 158 patients who had been involved in a motor vehicle accident (MVA) and who had sought medical attention within three days of the accident. The study found that, at 1-4 months after the accident, 62 (39%) participants met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, while 96 did not. This group was again evaluated at 12 months after the accident.

The authors found that 7 additional patients from the group of 96 non-PTSD patients now met the criteria for PTSD. The study compared these seven patients to the acute onset PTSD, as well as a group of 38 MVA patients who did not develop PTSD.

The researchers found that the delayed onset PTSD patients had significantly lower levels of social support at the time of the accident, and also showed poorer coping skills. Interestingly, there was no relationship found between the groups in terms of injury severity.

"From our data one can speculate that the physical injuries that patients received secondary to their accident healed more quickly in the control group than in the delayed onset group. Thus, it may be that nagging physical injuries serve as a constant reminder of the trauma that helps to maintain, and in some cases exacerbate, participant's symptom presentations. Alternatively, it could be the case that trauma victims suffering from PTSD symptomology are more sensitive to pain and thus give higher self-report ratings of pain and physical problems when questioned about the status of their injuries."

No matter what the relationship, PTSD symptoms can complicate MVA treatment and must be addressed.

Buckley TC, Blanchard EB, Hickling EJ. A prospective examination of delayed onset PTSD secondary to motor vehicle accidents. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 1996;105(4):617-625.