What is physical trauma?
Physical trauma is a serious injury to the body.
- Blunt force trauma occurs when the body is struck with an
object or force, causing concussions, lacerations or
- Penetrating trauma occurs when an object pierces the skin or
body, usually creating an open wound.
- Trauma also results from “controlled injury,” such
as that caused by surgery.
Psychological trauma is an emotional or psychological
injury, usually resulting from an extremely stressful or
life-threatening situation. For more information on psychological
trauma, visit the National Institute of Mental Health’s
Coping with Traumatic Events.
How many people die from physical trauma each year in
the United States?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
unintentional injury kills more people between the ages of 1 and 44
than any other disease or illness. More years of potential life are
lost due to injury than to heart disease or cancer.
What is the prognosis for severely injured
People with major injuries have a better chance of survival
today than in any time in the past. Yet trauma patients still face
the risk of death from shock (caused by massive blood loss),
infection, multiple organ dysfunction syndrome, acute respiratory
distress syndrome or sepsis.
How has basic research improved care for trauma
Research on the body’s physiological response to trauma
led to advances in fluid resuscitation, wound cleaning, infection
control and nutritional support. As a result, survival rates
increased dramatically, along with the health, functioning and
quality of life of survivors.
What are researchers learning about the body’s
response to major trauma?
- Research is revealing that inflammation plays critical and
complex roles following injury—it is necessary for healing
but is also linked to many life-threatening complications.
- Genomic studies are showing that severe injury alters the
activity levels of a large number of genes. A close analysis of
these changes could help scientists better understand the
body’s immediate and long-term responses to trauma and might
point to new treatment strategies.
- The discovery of new connections between the brain and the
inflammatory system throughout the body is leading to exciting new
therapeutic possibilities, including stimulation of the vagus nerve
to control systemic inflammation.
- Investigators have learned that internal organs often suffer
damage after a critical injury. This is because, when faced with a
life-threatening injury, the body will redirect blood to try to
save the brain and heart. This may rob the intestines and lungs of
oxygen and other vital blood-borne substances.
- Researchers and clinicians are increasingly gathering to share
information on new approaches for treating severely injured
patients, changing clinical practice and health policy. For
What is on the horizon for trauma research?
doctors cannot predict how individual trauma patients will fare
based solely on the type and severity of their injuries.
Researchers hope to identify specific genes or proteins that could
serve as markers to better predict outcomes and guide doctors to
the best course of treatment for each patient.
- Laboratory-grown cells and other advances in wound treatment
promise to speed the healing of damaged tissue and may enable a
greater return to function and less scarring.
- Continued testing of experimental approaches will bring new
treatments, leading to further declines in death rates from
traumatic injuries and reduced severity of complications.
What kinds of trauma research does the National
Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) support?
NIGMS sponsors basic and clinical research to improve
understanding of the biological processes that occur after
traumatic injury, bring basic scientific observations and
principles into the clinical arena, and foster interactions and
communications within institutions and throughout the trauma
community. The research is ultimately aimed at reducing or
preventing complications after a traumatic injury.
Where can I find more information about physical
, a nonprofit health association dedicated to the prevention of
trauma and the improvement of trauma care.
- National Center for Injury Prevention and Control
, established in 1992 by the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, this center is the lead federal agency for injury
, a society whose purpose is to facilitate the integration of
basic and clinical disciplines in the study of the causes of, and
treatments for, traumatic injury and shock.
, a knowledge cooperative that offers information on wound
care, including news features, technology reports, searchable
databases of the wound-related conditions and possible treatments,
and interactive tools where patients can tell their stories and ask
For additional information contact: Office of Communications and
Public Liaison, National Institute of General Medical Sciences,
Porcupine Quills, Gecko Feet and Spider Webs Inspire Medical
Life After Traumatic Injury: How the Body Responds
Video: The Body's Response to Traumatic Injury
NIGMS is a part of the National Institutes of Health that
supports basic research to increase our understanding of life
processes and lay the foundation for advances in disease diagnosis,
treatment and prevention. For more information on the Institute's
research and training programs, see http://www.nigms.nih.gov.
Content revised November 2012