Trauma occurs when a person experiences a sudden or violent injury. Safety should be foremost in people's minds because preventing a trauma is easier than treating it.

Seat Belts Saved Marcus

Marcus was 16 years old and in a car with four other teenagers. The driver was going too fast, missed a curve, and smashed into a tree. The compact car flipped over, throwing the teens who were not wearing seat belts. Marcus was not one of them. Paramedics found him conscious and still belted in the backseat with only a broken arm and leg. The four other passengers died. “Without seat belts,” Marcus said, “I'd be dead.”

What Is Trauma?

Physical trauma is an injury or wound caused by external force or violence: motor vehicle accidents, falls, burns, drowning, electric shock, stabbings, gunshots, and other physical assaults. Physical trauma may cause permanent disability. It is the leading cause of death for people below age 45 in the United States and is responsible for 73 percent of deaths in people between 15 and 24 years of age. In all, more than 100,000 Americans die every year as a result of trauma.

The majority of deaths occur in the first several hours after trauma. Trauma may also cause psychological shock that produces confusion, disoriented feelings and behaviors, and long-term aftereffects.

Trauma Emergencies

Traumatic injuries may include broken bones, severe sprains, head injuries, burns, and internal or external bleeding. They may occur at any time, and they are medical emergencies, meaning they require immediate treatment.


A burn is tissue damage that results from scalds, fires, flammable liquids, gases, chemicals, heat, electricity, sunlight, or radiation. In the United States each year, more than 1 million people receive burns severe enough that they need medical attention, and 45,000 of them require hospitalization. In addition to the 4,500 Americans who die each year from the burns themselves, as many as 10,000 more die from burn-related infections, particularly pneumonia.

The symptoms of burns vary. Burns may cause one or more of the following: swelling, blistering, dehydration * , infection, and destruction of skin and other body organs. Depending on the severity of the burn, its treatment may require antibiotics, transfusions, and/or surgery.

Traumatic brain injury

Traumatic brain injury is the form of trauma most likely to result in permanent disability or death. According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, about 1.4 million Americans sustain traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), and most of the injuries result from falls (28%) and motor vehicle accidents (20%). For active duty military personnel in war zones, blasts are a leading cause of TBI. Adolescents and young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 have the highest incidence of these injuries out of any age group, and males incur nearly twice as many TBIs as females do. About 50,000 Americans die from these injuries each year, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, another 5 million Americans have long-term consequences, including a need for assistance in performing normal daily activities.

TBIs affect many different parts of the body, and they may impair vision, memory, mood, concentration, strength, coordination, and balance. These injuries sometimes cause epilepsy * and coma * , and they may increase the risk for other diseases, such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's.


In some cases, a trauma patient may go into shock, a condition in which the body's circulatory system shuts down. Shock may result from internal or external bleeding, dehydration, vomiting, other loss of body fluids, burns, drug overdoses, severe allergic reactions, bacteria in the bloodstream (septic shock), and severe emotional upset. The symptoms of shock include cold and sweaty skin, weak and rapid pulse, dilated pupils, and irregular breathing.

Doctors who treat trauma patients often take action to avert shock even before they treat the injury itself. One way they do so is by ordering a transfusion of salt solution to maintain fluid levels and blood pressure.

Preventing Trauma

Trauma is one of the most preventable causes of death. Reducing traumatic injury requires individual, group, and government attention to public health and safety. Some important preventive measures for individuals are as follows:

The Trauma May Last

Survivors of traumatic events are at risk for psychological problems. These include post-traumatic stress disorder, which can interfere with activities of daily living long after physical wounds have healed. Emotional support and counseling can provide assistance. Signs and symptoms of ongoing psychological trauma include the following:

See also Brain Injuries • Broken Bones (Fractures) • Burns • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) • Seizures • Shock


Books and Articles

Halaas, Yael. “General Approach to the Trauma Patient.” Medscape, November 10, 2014. (accessed November 18, 2015).

Herman, Judith L. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: Basic Books, 2015.


National Child Traumatic Stress Network. “Types of Traumatic Stress.” (accessed November 18, 2015).

National Institutes of Health. “Burns and Traumatic Injury.” (accessed November 18, 2015).

Trauma Survivors Network. “Traumatic Injuries: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Complications.” traumapedias/19 (accessed November 18, 2015).


American Psychological Association. 750 First St. NE, Washington, DC 20002-4242. Toll-free: 800-374-2721. Website: (accessed November 18, 2015).

American Trauma Society. 201 Park Washington Ct., Falls Church, VA 22046. Toll-free: 800-556-7890. Website: (accessed April 9, 2016).

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1600 Clifton Rd., Atlanta, GA 30329-4027. Toll-free: 888-674-6854. Website: (accessed April 9, 2016).

National Institute of General Medical Sciences. 45 Center Dr., MSC 6200, Bethesda, MD 20892-6200. Telephone: 301-496-7301. Website: (accessed April 9, 2016).

* dehydration (dee-hi-DRAY-shun) is a condition in which the body is depleted of water, usually caused by excessive and unreplaced loss of body fluids, such as through sweating, vomiting, or diarrhea.

* epilepsy (EP-i-lep-see) is a condition of the nervous system characterized by recurrent seizures that temporarily affect a person's awareness, movements, or sensations. Seizures occur when powerful, rapid bursts of electrical energy interrupt the normal electrical patterns of the brain.

* coma (KO-ma) is an unconscious state, like a very deep sleep. A person in a coma cannot be awakened, and cannot move, see, speak, or hear.

* insomnia is the abnormal inability to get adequate sleep.

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.