“Help! I was injured in an auto accident and have disc damage… what now?”
Your spine is an intricate stack of 33 bones called “vertebrae.” Some of these vertebrae are cushioned by soft discs made of a jellylike substance. This cushioning keeps the vertebra from rubbing together. They also allow you to move your spine around and bend over.
Many auto accidents result in back injuries because the human back and neck are not always able to withstand the jarring impact that occurs in a serious car, truck or motorcycle accident. While seat belts and other safety restraints may reduce the impact, there aren’t many safety features on a car that can completely mitigate the risk of a serious back injury, especially when you are in a rear-end accident.
When a car hits something, someone or something hits the car, the inertia of the opposing force causes your body to move in that direction. This forward motion causes enormous pressure on your neck and back. Back injuries can be both incapacitating and excruciatingly painful.
Common types of crash-related back injuries
There are a few common pain-causing injuries in the spine following a car accident.
Discogenic back injuries
A discogenic injury is pain that is associated with damaged vertebral discs. Vertebral discs are cushion-like material located between each vertebrae bone that makes up the spine. They allow for movement and stability in the spine. However, your discs can deteriorate, either as a result of the natural aging process (degenerative) or due to sudden acute trauma such as a car accident.
The first signs of discogenic injuries are stiffness and pain. You may also experience weakness and a tingling sensation. Discogenic pain is often treated with ice, heat, anti-inflammatories and physical therapy. If the pain becomes chronic, sometimes surgery is required.
Facet joint back injuries
Your facet joints are relatively fixed. They are essentially stabilizers to your vertebral column. The bones of your facets are lined with cartilage, which cushions the joint. The facet joints help to support the weight of your body and control movement between each vertebra of the spine. It can be extremely painful if your facet joints become displaced or irritated as a result of a car accident.
Often, the most common symptom of a facet joint injury is muscle spasms. Two of the most common causes of facet joint pain are osteoarthritis and whiplash. Treatment for a facet joint injury typically involves reducing inflammation by applying hot and cold compresses, as well as taking anti-inflammatory medication. Rest, massage therapy and physiotherapy may also be prescribed.
Also called slipped or ruptured disc, a disc herniation occurs when the soft inner filling of the disc protrudes through the tough outer casing. The protruding substance often comes into contact with the surrounding nerves, which is extremely painful. They can also cause weakness and numbness in your neck, back, arms, and legs.
Herniated discs most often occur in the lower back, just above the hips. In the case of a herniated disc, the pain may spread from your back to your buttocks, thighs, or calves. The pain usually gets worse with activity so doctors typically prescribe rest as a treatment, in addition to hot and cold packs, medications and physical therapy.
A fracture or dislocation of the vertebrae can cause bone fragments to pinch and damage the spinal nerves or spinal cord. Most spinal fractures occur from car accidents, falls, or sports. Even minor falls or trauma can cause a spine fracture.
Most spinal fractures heal in time with pain medication, reduction in activity, medications to stabilize bone density, and a good back brace to minimize motion. Most people return to their everyday activities. But major fractures can cause serious long-term problems unless treated promptly and properly.
Spine fractures range from painful compression fractures to more severe injuries such as burst fractures and fracture-dislocations. Due to an external force to the spine, the front part of the vertebral body may crush, causing the compression fracture. If the entire vertebral column breaks, it results in a burst fracture. Sometimes surgery is required.
The 3 most common surgeries for spinal fractures are:
- Balloon kyphoplasty — a procedure involving tiny, minimally invasive incisions.
- Vertebroplasty — similar to balloon kyphoplasty in that it also uses tiny incisions.
- Spinal fusion surgery — usually a last resort, this operation stops all vertebrae movement to reduce pain.
Spondylolysis is a stress fracture through the pars interarticularis of the lumbar vertebrae. The pars interarticularis is a thin bone segment joining 2 vertebrae. There are sometimes no symptoms of spondylolysis, but if there are symptoms then it is usually back pain. This pain gets worse with activity, bending backward, and sports.
Treatment for this condition is rest, anti-inflammatories, physical therapy and a lumbar brace. Spondylolysis can cause spondylolisthesis.
Spondylolisthesis occurs when stress fractures cause the vertebrae to move out of place. A slipping of the vertebrae, this condition causes compression to the nerves or the spinal canal which results in numbness, weakness, low back pain, muscle tightness and stiffness, pain in the buttocks, pain radiating down the legs and difficulty walking.
Spondylolisthesis is often treated by strengthening the supportive abdominal and back muscles through physical therapy. If physical therapy doesn’t relieve the condition, there is the option of surgical fusion of the vertebra to the bone below.
Other types of back injuries that commonly arise after an auto accident include:
- Whiplash describes damage to the muscles, ligaments and tissues in the neck. These can occur in rear-end accidents when the force of an accident propels the head and neck in a jerking motion.
- Lumbar sprains can be caused by excessive force on the back, as is common when lifting a heavy object, in a car accident, or while playing sports. It occurs when the ligaments (the bands of tissue that hold bones together) are torn from their attachments.
- Lumbar strains can be caused when the muscle fibers are excessively stretched or torn. Both sprains and strains can be caused by sudden injury or gradual overuse.
- Spinal stenosis is an abnormal narrowing of the channel that holds your spinal nerves and spinal cord. This can be caused by natural aging, or it can be caused by trauma such as a car accident. Often, a ruptured disc or bone fragment is encroaching the spinal canal space, applying pressure to the nerves or cord and causing pain. The 3 most common surgeries for spinal stenosis are laminectomy, foraminotomy and spinal fusion. The long-term effects of spinal stenosis are hypertrophy (increase density) of the bones, ligaments and connective tissue in the spine due to the loss of stability.
Diagnosis and treatment of back injuries
If you are experiencing back pain of any sort following a car accident, then you should see a doctor immediately. Sometimes coughing, sneezing and sitting can aggravate back pain because they put pressure on pinched nerves. The most common types of diagnostic testing for a disc herniation or other back injuries are myelogram, CT scan, MRI and EMG/NCS.
For simple sprains and strains, the usual treatment is rest, ice packs, compression and anti-inflammatories. You may also require pain medication. However, don’t assume that you can self-treat your back pain. Even a seemingly simple strain or sprain can be complicated by a sedentary lifestyle, weight gain, loss of bone density or loss of strength and flexibility in other parts of your body. Arthritis is also a complication.
Depending on the severity of your back injury, your doctor may begin you on exercise (physical therapy) and medication. You may be referred to an orthopedic surgeon and a neurologist.
Physical therapy generally consists of:
- Stretching exercises
- Aerobic exercises
- Ice and heat
- Ultrasound therapy
- Electrical muscle stimulation
If these initial treatments don’t help, injections may be tried. The doctor may inject steroids into the space around your spinal nerve. If this does not help, then surgery may be the option. Surgery might be recommended if:
- You’re not getting better
- Your symptoms are getting worse
- You have trouble standing or walking
- You can’t control your bowels or bladder
Common types of back injury surgeries are discectomy, lumbar laminotomy, spinal fusion and artificial disk surgery.
What to expect after a back injury
In summary, when you are injured in an automobile accident, you should either be taken to the emergency room or visit your primary care physician as soon as possible. If you are injured and don’t seek treatment immediately, your condition could worsen over time.
On these doctor visits, you may have to undergo extensive diagnostic testing to determine the extent of your injuries. Once your injuries have been determined, you may be referred to a specialist. You may also have to be seen by a physical therapist to ease your pain, help you move easier and build your strength. Or you may have to visit an occupational therapist to help you with your activities of daily living. If the pain becomes chronic, surgery may be necessary.
For each of the injuries listed above, the first steps after seeing the doctor are generally rest, hot and cold packs and anti-inflammatories. This process can be time-consuming, inconvenient and affect your activities of daily living (including your job). Further treatment is even more time consuming and expensive. You may be required to miss a significant amount of work because of your injuries.
If this sounds familiar to you, then it is important to hire a reputable personal injury attorney near you who has your best interests in mind. At Scholle Law, we are highly experienced in working with clients with these types of injuries. Let us help you find out what to do next to make sure that you’re properly compensated for your injuries.