Whiplash, herniated disc and spinal cord injury are among the most common injuries arising from a motor vehicle accident; however, the most serious back injuries involve injury to the spine. Spinal injuries can range from bruising to undue pressure to permanent damage and prolonged disability, and can result in reduced sensation, strength and mobility, and loss of bodily function. For younger adults, car accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injury (SCI).
Even a fairly minor car accident can result in a back injury or spinal injury that causes long-term pain and mobility issues, and sometimes, the extent of injury doesn’t become truly known until weeks or months after the accident. Persons who already have an underlying or pre-existing back condition or back pain are particularly vulnerable to sustain life-changing damage in a repetitive injury situation.
A spinal injury can impact the nerves, discs, muscles, ligaments and tendons surrounding the spinal vertebrae, and damage to any of these areas can be a source of pain. Different accident scenarios can result in different types of injury – for example, a rear end collision causes the back to undergo a whiplash-type movement while a rollover accident can result in altogether different forces acting on a car occupant’s back and body. Also, each person may be uniquely affected by the same traumatic event, depending on many factors including their current state of health, age, gender, height and weight, pre-existing conditions, and whether they were wearing a seatbelt.
If you were involved in an automobile accident and have experienced significant trauma to your neck or head, you are advised to seek immediate care from a physician. It’s extremely important to have a potential SCI treated promptly since the condition may worsen over time (for example, through an increase in swelling and bleeding around the spinal cord) and a delay in getting treatment may result in more severe and permanent damage. The onset of symptoms may not be immediate; however, be aware of the following signs after an accident which may indicate damage to the spinal cord (www.mayoclinic.org).
Emergency symptoms of Spinal Cord Injury
- Extreme back pain or pressure in your head, neck or back
- Numbness or tingling in your extremities (hands, feet, fingers or toes)
- Difficulty walking or balancing
- Weakness, lack of coordination or loss of feeling anywhere in your body
- Difficulty breathing
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Twisted neck or back
The three main areas of the spine that may be injured in a motor vehicle accident include: the neck or cervical vertebrae; the upper back or thoracic vertebrae; and the lower back or lumbar vertebrae. The location of a SCI influences which parts of a person’s body are impacted by the injury and generally, the type and severity of symptoms.
In most cases, symptoms are more severe, the higher the location of spinal injury. This means that an injury to the cervical spinal cord is often the most severe type of SCI since the cervical vertebrae are close to the brain and injury can cause a loss of function and feeling below the neck and shoulders (and can result in quadriplegia /tetraplegia). In contrast, an acute spinal cord injury in the thoracic vertebrae usually affects the legs and abdominal area only, including bladder and bowel function (and not the arms and upper body).
Spinal injuries are generally classified as complete (where there is no feeling or ability to move below the point of injury) or incomplete (where the person has some degree of feeling and movement below the point of injury). The following are the most common symptoms of an acute spinal injury: breathing problems; muscle weakness; loss of feeling and voluntary muscle movement in the arms, legs or chest area; and loss of bowel and bladder function.
Clearly, an acute spinal cord injury may have catastrophic consequences, as in the case of paraplegia or quadriplegia; however, even a sprain or strain to the lumbar or cervical areas of the spine can be extremely painful and can significantly impact a person’s ability to perform normal activities. Consider that the lumbar spine provides stability to the spine and back, so an injury to this area can affect every attempted movement and can cause pain even when a person is sitting, standing or lying down.
In addition to the debilitating symptoms which can result from a spinal injury, persons who experience prolonged symptoms due to a serious spinal cord injury can also suffer the following complications: (www.hopkinsmedicine.org)
- Increased pain
- Breathing troubles
- Infections and/or skin sores
- Severe headaches
- Urination or bowel problems
- Severe muscle cramps
Treatment for a spinal injury can be extensive and prolonged, beginning with emergency treatment to maintain the patient’s cardiovascular and respiratory function and prevent further damage. When the person’s condition has stabilized, they are generally transferred to a SCI centre where they will undergo a range of treatments by a team of neurosurgeons, physiotherapists, orthopedic surgeons, psychologists and other healthcare professions, including medication, immobilization, surgeries and experimental therapies and treatments (such as cell regeneration treatment). When the injury has further stabilized, treatment next focusses on preventing secondary damage, such as blood clots, pressure ulcers and bladder problems. The next stage of treatment involves intensive rehabilitation, which includes strengthening existing muscle function, learning adaptive techniques to complete everyday tasks, and receiving appropriate medications (for example, for promote bladder and bowel function. Some persons with acute SCI may be permanently bedridden; others may gain mobility through the use of wheelchairs, electronic stimulation devices, computer aids and devices.
The road to recovery, to the extent that it’s possible for a SCI victim, is difficult and painful, and rehabilitation treatment includes psychological treatments to help patients cope with depression and mental health challenges that understandably overwhelm persons who are dealing with such a life-altering situation.
Spinal discs provide a cushioning function between the vertebrae in your spine, and they absorb the impact of our body weight and movements. Spinal discs are comprised of a soft, jellylike nucleus (nucleus pulposus) and tough, rubbery outer exterior (annulus fibrosus).
A herniated or ruptured disc occurs when the jellylike nucleus in one of these discs pushes out through a tear in the annulus, which can cause irritation to a nearby nerve and blocked nerve signals. Herniated discs most often occur in the lower back or lumbar vertebrae, but can occur anywhere in the spine. A herniated disc in the lower back is a frequent cause of lower back pain and shooting leg pain (sciatica).
Common causes of a herniated disc include: age-related wear and tear; improper lifting; repetitive activities; prolonged sitting; obesity; and smoking (which can lead to degenerative disc disease). A herniated disc can also result from trauma, as can occur in a car accident.
Persons with a herniated disc may experience intense pain, such as sciatica; tingling, numbness or weakness in their legs or arms, depending on the location of the compromised disc; inflammation; and in rare cases, a loss of bowel or bladder control.
Treatment for a herniated disc includes: low impact movement; exercising your core; maintaining a healthy weight; stop smoking; steroid injection; and surgery if the other treatments are unsuccessful.
Any back injury can cause prolonged pain and loss of mobility, even when the person’s spine was not seriously damaged. Injury to the upper back can be particularly serious because such injuries can be accompanied by rib fractures and damage to the chest wall, diaphragm, lungs and heart. Thoracic (upper back) injuries usually result from blunt force trauma or rapid de-acceleration, which may occur in a serious car accident. This type of injury may cause permanent nerve damage, a thoracic spine (compression) fracture, or paraplegia.
Depending on the nature of the injury, a back injury may involve a range of treatments. Some back injuries can be alleviated with temporary treatments, including pain medications, physiotherapy, inflammation injections and chiropractic treatments. Serious back injuries such as a spinal fracture or ruptured disk may require surgery to alleviate pressure on the spinal cord and nerves or to fuse vertebrae. Unfortunately, spinal cord surgery can, in some cases, lead to side effects such as blood clots, infection, bleeding and spinal fluid leaks.
A serious back injury or spinal cord injury can clearly have significant long-term affects on quality of life, both with respect to the chronic pain which often accompanies these injuries and due to the loss of ability to move and perform everyday activities that were once enjoyed. If you sustained a back or spinal injury in a car accident and have sustained losses as a result of your injury, you may be entitled to substantial compensation from the person responsible for the accident. Talk to an experienced ILO back injury lawyer to learn more about your legal right to accident compensation.