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Herniated Disc Injuries after a Car Accident

Most people have heard of the term “slipped” or “ruptured” discs. When people say this, they are actually describing a herniated disc, which is a common source of pain in the neck, lower back, arms and legs. Herniated discs can often occur after a vehicular collision. The word “herniate” (say: her-nee-ate) means to bulge or to stick out. Herniated discs are most common in the lumbar spine — the lower part of your backbone, between the bottom of your ribs and your hips.

Your spine is comprised of 26 vertebrae (bones) and in between them are discs. Discs are similar to soft cushions between the hard bones of the spine and are filled with a jelly like substance. They let you move your backbone around, and also keep the vertebrae in place. The spinal canal is a hollow space in the middle of the spinal column containing the spinal cord and nerve roots. As you age, the discs break down or degenerate. When this happens, they lose their cushioning ability, which can lead to pain if the back is stressed.

When do Herniated Disc injuries occur?

Herniated discs occur when those discs rupture, allowing the jelly-like center to leak. In medical terminology, a tear in the outer fibrous ring of the disc, which enables the central portion of the disc to extend outside the damaged outer layer. In turn, the herniated disc irritates the surrounding nerves. [1] When part of a disc presses on a nerve, it can cause pain in the back and legs. The location of the pain depends on which disc is weak. The severity of the pain is dependent on how much of the disc is pressing on the nerve. In most people with herniated discs, the pain spreads over the buttocks and goes down the back of one thigh and into the calf, otherwise known as sciatica (because pain travels along the sciatic nerve’s path). Some people have reported pain in both legs. Others say their legs and/or feet feel numb/tingly. Herniated discs are diagnosed with a physical exam, and sometimes imaging tests.

How can a disc herniate in a car accident?

Depending on the force involved in the collision between vehicles, a specific amount of energy is transferred to the seatbacks of the driver and passengers. The energy results in a compression of the seat due to inertia of the torso. The torso is moved around as the seat is restored to its normal position. This all occurs in less than a split second. As energy is transferred to the seatbacks, axial (up and down) compression of the spine occurs, the thoracic spine straightens and the entire spine from C1 all the way to the sciatica becomes compressed in that instant. Loading of the spine that results in compression can damage the outer most ring of the disc (known as the annulus fibrosus). The annulus fibrosus holds the disc material (disc nucleus) in place. A tear of the outer layer of the disc is commonly referred to as an annular tear.

A majority of individuals older than thirty (30) years of age have some degree of spine/disc degeneration. Degeneration of the discs is normal, age related and grows progressively worse as we get older. However, degenerative changes occur gradually over time and generally do not cause any pain. However, the degenerative process weakens the disc and surrounding annulus fibrosus. Thus, the discs itself become more susceptible to injury as a result of any type of trauma, including a motor vehicle collision.

According to peer-reviewed literature, there is no established minimal level of force required to cause injury to an intervertebral disc. In fact, disc injuries have been described in the very same literature as occurring with minimal load levels that would equate to the force of a 3-4 mph rear end impact. [2]

Individuals can recover from symptomatic spinal disc injury with treatment such as rest, pain, anti-inflammatory medications, and physical therapy. If medicine doesn’t help the pain, your doctor may give you a shot in your backbone. This might stop your pain. You may need more than 1 shot though. Also, stretching of the spine by your doctor or a chiropractor can often help ease the pain.

Herniated disc pain is often worse when you are active and actually gets better when resting. The pain might be worsened by coughing, sitting, sneezing, driving, or bending forward. The pain worsens because such movements result in pressure on the nerves. Those experiencing pain from a herniated disc might often change positions to reduce pain. Some shift their weight from side to side to alleviate the pain. Herniated discs can be a lifelong problem, and they can be caused by a single car accident. Unfortunately, many accident victims do not seek legal counsel until it is too late. After a collision, back and neck injury problems sometimes go unnoticed or undiagnosed. People hope the pain will fade but occasionally a disc has been dislodged and a lifetime of uncompensated back pain could occur.

Contact Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA

If you are in a car accident and experience back pain, seek medical attention immediately. Ask your doctor about the possibility of herniated discs. Hire an attorney who can put you in touch with experienced medical providers to help you get the treatment you need. Additionally, a qualified attorney can help you get the compensation you need for these treatments. Call Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA today at 727-451-6900.

Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA
800 North Belcher Road
Clearwater, FL 33765


[1] Burke LG. Backache from Occiput to Coccyx 2013
[2] Freeman MD, Croft AC, Nicodemus CN, Centeno CJ, Welkins WL. Significant spinal injury resulting from low-level accelerations: A case series of roller coaster injuries Arch Phys Med Rehab November 2005; 86:2126-30