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Trauma Fact Sheet

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 fractures.
  • 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. Car accident

What is the prognosis for severely injured people?

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 patients?

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?

Traumatic injury
  • 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.

What is on the horizon for trauma research?

  • Intensive Care UnitCurrently, 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 trauma?

  • American Trauma Society Link to external Web site , a nonprofit health association dedicated to the prevention of trauma and the improvement of trauma care.
  • National Center for Injury Prevention and Control Link to external Web site , established in 1992 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this center is the lead federal agency for injury prevention.
  • Shock Society Link to external Web site , 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.
  • Wounds1 Link to external Web site , 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 experts questions.

For additional information contact: Office of Communications and Public Liaison, National Institute of General Medical Sciences, or 301-496-7301.

NIGMS is a part of the National Institutes of Health that supports basic research to increase our understanding of biological 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

Content revised November 2012

This page last reviewed on May 11, 2016