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Impact of Car Accidents Can Be Long-Lasting

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Aug. 20, 2001 -- Approximately every 10 seconds someone in the U.S. is injured in a motor vehicle accident, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Fortunately, most accidents are not fatal, but even minor ones can cause long-term anxiety as well as fears and phobias about driving or riding in a car.

The latest study by British researchers suggests that at least one-third of all people involved in nonfatal accidents have posttraumatic stress disorder, persistent anxiety, depression, and phobias one year after the incident.

The study suggests there may be "rather large psychological complications even when the motor vehicle accidents have medically not been in the least bit serious," says study author Richard Mayou, FRCPsych, professor of psychiatry at the University of Oxford's department of psychiatry at Warneford Hospital in Oxford, England.

"In the past there has been an assumption that people who have more severe injuries are more likely to get psychiatric complications, but that is not so," he tells WebMD. His study appears in the August issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Most of the more than 1,000 men and women in the study who had been taken to a hospital after an accident recovered from the psychological impact within three to 12 months. Others had persistent problems or suddenly developed anxiety and other symptoms months after the accident. Interestingly, most people with persistent anxiety were passengers in the accident rather than drivers.

Mayou says anxiety about traveling may mean feeling anxious when driving or riding in cars or avoiding cars altogether. You also may feel nervous or anxious when passing the site of the accident, seeing similar road conditions or traveling in the vehicle involved in the accident or a similar type or color of car.

The most important factor in recovering from the trauma of the accident is recognizing that you are having a problem and getting help, Mayou says.

Like other types of trauma, car accidents can cause long-term stress that affects your work and relationships and can eventually lead to depression, anxiety, and sleep problems, says Alan Steinberg, PhD.

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