Car Accidents Have a High Risk of Causing Neck and Back Injury
Car accidents, and the force that goes along with them, can be seriously damaging to the neck and back. These areas of the body are both crucial to bodily function, yet sensitive to sudden movement and force. As a car slams into something, or something slams into a car, the inertia of the opposing force causes everything in the car, including a human, to move in that direction. But there’s only so much room to move in a car; eventually, the seat belt, car door, dashboard, or some other object is going to stop that forward momentum. This force often generates enormous pressure on the neck and back.
This jerking motion is often referred to as whiplash (a neck injury) and can cause a number of different injuries to the spine. Quite simply, the spine was not designed to handle the forces that modern machines are capable of exerting on these sensitive structures.
Neck and lower back injuries can be both debilitating and extremely painful. Two of the most common pain generating injuries in the spine are disc injuries and facet joint injuries. This article focuses on these two areas because of their commonality. If you’re suffering back pain, it is important to know the difference between these two causes.
First, let’s take a look at discogenic injuries:
Back Pain from a Car Accident
Discogenic pain refers to pain that is associated with the spinal discs. These round pieces of cartilage act like a cushioning system between each bone that make up the spine. They also allow for movement and stability. When one or more spinal disc is damaged, the pain can be intense.
Discogenic pain occurs as the condition of the spinal discs either gradually deteriorate over time or as a result of sudden acute trauma, such as in a car crash.
Of course, discogenic pain is caused by some sort of damage to the spinal disc. The majority of people experience discogenic pain in the lumbar (lower) spine area. The most common injuries that cause pain in this area are lumbar sprains, spinal stenosis, disc herniation, and degenerative spinal disorder. Let’s take a brief moment to clarify each of these common conditions.
Sprains in the lumbar region often result from the excessive force on the back, like lifting a heavy object, a sports injury, or a car crash. These traumas cause the ligaments, muscles, and tendons in the back to stretch too much. When this excessive stretching occurs, it is called a sprain (or strain). These injuries often cannot be diagnosed by imaging and instead rely on doctor experience and patient consultation to determine the diagnosis.
The word stenosis in medicine means the abnormal narrowing of a body channel. Therefore, spinal stenosis refers to a narrowing of the bone channel that houses the spinal nerves and spinal cord. Spinal stenosis is most commonly caused by natural aging, however, it can be caused by trauma such as a car accident. In these cases, often a ruptured disc or bone fragment is invading the spinal canal space, applying pressure to the nerves or cord and causing pain.
Disc Herniation After A Car Wreck
A common injury to the cushion-like discs that separate your vertebrae is known as disc herniation. This occurs when the soft inner filling of the disc protrudes through the tougher outer encasing. This rupture by itself is often not painful, however, the protruding material then often comes in contact with surrounding nerves, which very much does cause pain. Herniated discs can go by many other names, some slang and some used by medical professionals, but they all generally refer to a very similar injury.
Degenerative Spinal Disorders
Degenerative disc disorders encompass many different injuries and symptoms that all relate to the breaking down of the spine or its parts as the body ages. Degenerative Spinal Disorders can cause any number of injuries, conditions, or pains, including Spinal osteoarthritis, Degenerative disc disease, Bulging discs, Herniated discs, Spondylolisthesis, Degenerative scoliosis, Bone spurs, Spinal stenosis, Foraminal stenosis, Pinched nerves, Sciatica.
Discogenic pain can present itself while a person is sitting or lying perfectly still, or when some form of activity irritates the affected area. This pain is often described as shooting and sharp; it can be localized to the damaged disc area or it may radiate to one or both legs, the buttocks, the groin, or feet. This radiation is known as sciatica and it can be extremely uncomfortable.
Typically, the pain will be exasperated by bending over, sitting, or standing for short or long periods of time; each person has their own trigger. Some people find relief by laying down flat or in a cradled position, while others find that walking or moving around will actually relieve the pain.
Diagnosing Lower Back Pain from Car Accident
The lumbar spine has 5 vertebrae with soft discs in between. Each disc has a tough outer ring surrounding a soft nucleus. When young, the discs consist predominantly of water. As we age, however, they lose hydration and become more susceptible to cracking and fissures known as annular tears. These tears lead to inflammation and pain.
Because back pain has so many different causes, it’s important to have a skilled practitioner properly diagnose your problem. MRIs or tomography is helpful in identifying signs of disc degeneration or damage. However, since some degenerated discs don’t cause pain, skilled doctors will recognize the need for other tests, such as discography to identify all problematic discs. It is also essential the Radiologist and Spine Surgeon (if and when necessary) take time to illustrate acute trauma (immediate injury from the accident) to the spine as opposed to pain relating to degenerative disc disease.
Treating Discogenic Pain
Physical Therapy For Treating An Injury To The Spine
Physical therapist helps discogenic pain sufferers by moving and manipulating the back and neck and giving homework for the patient to do at home, in order to lessen the pain and restore movement. This can include lumbar side bending, transverse plane motion, flexion-rotation mobilization, homework exercises to do during the treatment. Physical therapy for neck and back pain can often abolish the patient’s pain completely and restored a considerable range of motion.
Anti-inflammatory medications are usually another early step in treating discogenic back pain. Other drugs, like acetaminophen, naproxen, antidepressants, and anti-epileptics can help.
Some non-surgical treatments have proven successful in providing long-lasting relief. For example, epidural corticosteroid injections, intradiscal steroid injection, and intradiscal electrothermal therapy are well-known examples of non-surgical treatments that are highly effective. These options can be very helpful in resolving discogenic pain. Of course, if these treatments don’t provide sufficient relief, surgery may be the only option left.
Surgery is often not necessary, but if you’re in debilitating pain for 3 months or more, you may need to consider it as an option.
One type of minimally invasive spine surgery is Intradiscal Electrothermal Therapy (IDET). This surgery cauterizes the fibers around the tear, which helps fuse and kill off painful nerve endings. With the nerve endings dead, you won’t be able to feel the discogenic pain anymore.
The most common surgery for discogenic pain is spinal fusion.
Be sure to research all your options and speak to your health care providers before choosing the best course of action for you.
Facet Injuries after a Car Accident
Facet joints are a lesser-known part of the spine but play an important role in their function. These joints are surrounded by a thick, flexible membrane that secretes a viscous fluid that lubricates the joints and allows the spine to move easily. These joints help to support the weight of the body and facilitate movement between each vertebra. Facet joints work in conjunction with the spinal discs to allow strong, controlled movement throughout the spine and entire body.
Basically, the facet joint’s role is to prevent the spine from moving too much in one direction or the other. They are the reason the human body won’t completely bend backward, forwards, or sideways. In order to properly perform this function, these joints have a large number of nerve endings. It is this large concentration of nerves that cause this area to be particularly painful when damaged.
Frequent symptoms correlating to facet joint pain consist of muscle spasms, which may force the spine out of alignment causing back and/or neck pain. For example, a patient may experience a muscle spasm while simply bending over to pick up an item; this may freeze the joint as it slips out of place. When facet joints freeze it typically occurs abruptly and without notice.
Facet joint injury symptoms vary greatly and are often confused with spinal disc issues. Facet locking syndrome can create a sudden painful attack, but it can be resolved by releasing the frozen joint or joints and thereby returning the facets to normal function.
Facet joint pain may also arise from aggravation or nerve irritation of the joint. When this happens, the nearby muscles spasms in an effort to help protect the area from further damage by preventing movement.
Proper Diagnosis and Treatment for Facet Joint Injuries
Fortunately, facet joint injuries can be seen on standard x-rays. Occasionally, a CT scan is ordered so that more details of the spinal structures can be seen. Having a CT scan done, as opposed to a normal x-ray, can also help to rule out other possible issues with the facets.
Your physician may also find it beneficial to use an injection dye during an X-ray in order to more clearly see what is going on; this is called a facet joint block. In this method, the dye is used along with a local anesthetic and cortisone in order to light up the areas of concern. This allows the radiologist to see very detailed information concerning the injured area. An MRI scan may also be used to diagnose facet joint issues if the other two methods will not suffice for some reason.
Treating Facet Joint Pain Causing Auto Accident Back Pain
A common treatment for treating facet joint pain is the implementation of a simple cold or hot compress but always check with your physician before starting any treatment. The typical order is 15 minutes of either hot or cold therapy every 2-3 hours, depending on your physician’s recommendation.
NSAID’s (also known as anti-inflammatory) like ibuprofen can be helpful as well since they will reduce swelling in the affected area.
If possible, attempt to move slowly. Don’t push yourself and listen to your body. If you are in pain, stop what you are doing. If the pain persists, sometimes a therapeutic massage can help relieve the spasm, but be sure you let the therapist know of your issue before the massage begins.
Another option is to seek out a qualified chiropractor for help. Be sure they are qualified by researching the therapist before making an appointment. Also be sure to give very detailed information about what happened, how it happened, and where the pain is located.
Lastly, exercise has been shown to improve spasms and stiffness. However, it is imperative that you speak to a medical professional first. By exercising without knowing the extent of your injury, you may actually worsen the pain.
How is back pain treated?
Treatment for low back pain generally depends on whether the pain is minor (acute) or severe (chronic). The following treatments are generally ordered from most acute, or non-invasive, too most serious, ending with surgery. Any doctor will tell you, surgery is only recommended if conditions are worsening and/or if corrective procedures will cure or greatly relieve the patient’s pain.
Types of Treatments for Lower Back Pain
- Hot or cold packs
- Strengthening exercises
- Physical therapy
- Analgesic medications (such as over the counter medications like acetaminophen, aspirin, as well as prescription opioids such as oxycodone and morphine)
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (ibuprofen, naproxen sodium)
- Anticonvulsants (primarily used to treat seizures but may help with radiculopathy)
- Counter-irritants (Bengay, Icy Hot)
- Spinal manipulation (chiropractic care)
- Nerve block therapies (injections of local anesthetics, steroids)
- Epidural steroid injections
- and of course, surgery.
Surgery as a Treatment for Lower Back Pain
When the above therapies quit working or when it is clear that surgery is necessary to improve an accident victim’s quality of life, surgery is considered to relieve neck and lower back pain caused by car accidents or other serious accidents or conditions. Surgery is often risky for patients but the long-term relief can outweigh the possible negative outcomes. Back pain and neck pain reduce one’s enjoyment and capacity to live life so much, that oftentimes surgery is welcomed. As long the surgery is well-suited to the patient’s condition, they are often extremely successful in relieving their pain.
Surgical options for neck and back pain include:
- Vertebroplasty and kyphoplasty
- Spinal laminectomy
- Discectomy or microdiscectomy
- Intradiscal electrothermal therapy
- Radiofrequency denervation
- Spinal fusion
- Artificial disc replacement
How Car Accidents Cause Neck and Back Pain
Car accidents involve a tremendous amount of physics when evaluating the impact on a vehicle occupant’s body. Whiplash is a common cause of neck and back injuries resulting from a car accident, whether the injury is to the spinal disc or facet joint. During a vehicle crash, the speed and force create a dramatic acceleration/deceleration that the body is not prepared for. Sometimes these injuries can be repaired through physical medicine or pain management intervention as we have previously discussed.
Upper And Middle Back Pain After A Car Accident
The thoracic spine (located directly under the cervical spine of the neck) comprises your upper and mid-back. By nature, the thoracic spine is far more rigid and biomechanically supported than the lumbar spine. Hence, why thoracic spinal injuries are rare. The thoracic spine (T 1- T12) consists of twelve vertebrae.
Whiplash Can Cause Upper And Middle Back Pain
Keep in mind that whiplash can cause upper and mid-back pain and is not limited to the neck. Fusions and laminectomies can be performed on the thoracic disc levels no different than the cervical and lumbar spine. However, surgery should only be attempted when all less restrictive measures (i.e., conservative care and interventional pain management/injection therapy) have been explored and failed.
Another procedure common to thoracic spine surgery is kyphoplasty. Kyphoplasty is a surgical procedure to treat a compression fracture of the vertebrae (oftentimes the thoracic spine). This is a minimally invasive outpatient procedure where a balloon is inflated to restore the proper height of the vertebrae. Bone cement then is injected to keep the vertebrae in place.
Neck Injury From Car Accident
Acceleration-deceleration is the main cause of trauma to the spine during a car accident. A common result is a herniated disc. In fact, asymptomatic discogenic neck pathology, seen on an MRI (i.e, herniated disc, bulge, etc.) becomes symptomatic following acute trauma like a car accident. In the context of a car accident, neck injury victims generally start with conservative care (chiropractic or physical therapy). In many cases, muscle and ligament injuries will respond well to a period of conservative care. Muscle and ligament related pain are often labeled as soft tissue injuries.
Medical Treatment For Neck Injury After A Car Accident
It is extremely rare for a car accident victim to warrant immediate medical attention from a Spine Surgeon with the exception of a genuine spinal cord injury or a nerve injury (oftentimes a herniated disc directly impacting a nerve root) that in the context of neck trauma; severely limits grip strength, strength within the arm and in the case of a lower back injury will manifest itself as foot drop (i.e. dragging of the foot or inability to properly walk) or cauda equina syndrome.
Typical Care For Cervical Spine Injuries
Absent the aforementioned issues, an accident victim with a cervical spine ( i.e., neck) injury; will generally attempt interventional pain management alongside conservative care once MRI results are obtained. Many accident victims with neck symptoms will undergo epidural steroid injections of the cervical spine in an effort to determine whether temporary episodic relief can be obtained. If so, the patient may be a candidate for successful minimally invasive spine surgery. Interventional pain management (pain management via procedures, not medications such as opiates) is often more diagnostic than therapeutic. The pain management specialist (generally an Anesthesiologist or Physiatrist) will correlate the clinical presentation with the diagnostic results via MRI findings and determine the appropriate course of care. The insurance company will generally view the objective medical documentation from an interventional pain management physician and place a higher value on such as opposed to merely conservative care. In other words, the insurance carrier will note that conservative care failed to alleviate the individual’s pain following a car accident and more provocative care was required.
Whiplash Accident Lawyer
Our firm has handled thousands of car accident whiplash claims over the past decade. These are some of the most difficult cases to pursue and overcome obstacles the insurance industry utilizes on muscle and ligament injury claims of the neck. Insurance adjusters and their experts will label whiplash as a simple sprain or strain injury. Ironically, non-surgical whiplash is often worse than your typical disc injury that requires surgery. That might sound odd, but allow me to explain. Surgery is a definitive solution to chronic pain caused by a disc injury of the spine. Muscle and ligament injuries are generally much more difficult to treat with no exact timeline as to when a tear of strain will heal.
Whiplash can impede an auto accident victim’s quality of life every bit as much as a disc injury. Insurance carriers go into these cases with the goal of minimizing the value of each claim. It is almost as if you are guilty until proven innocent. Further, because whiplash claims are not easy; many lawyers fail to spend the money necessary to hire the best experts and aggressively pursue such claims. As a Florida whiplash injury lawyer, I take these claims very seriously. We are empathetic to how these injuries impact our clients. Further, if we do not aggressively pursue every last case, the insurance carriers will lump us in with the settlement mills. A settlement mill is a law firm that worries about signing up a high volume of clients and litigates a disproportionately low amount of cases.
Florida Spinal Cord Injury Lawyer
We have handled numerous genuine spinal cord injuries over the past decade. Keep in mind, that spinal cord injury cases are unique and it is vital that your car accident lawyer is well versed in handling such cases. In fact, spinal cord cases require the retention of a team of experts to illustrate to the applicable insurance company and potentially a jury, how this permanent injury will impact the injury victim’s quality of life forever and the overall costs of future medical care and alterations to the home one must make to ensure the residence has the proper layout and equipment to assist the individual. Spinal cord injury cases are by nature very expensive and the car accident law firm must have the necessary financial resources to handle said case properly.
Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, P.A. has in excess of 100 years of combined experience in assisting victims with neck and back injury victims following a car accident. In addition to setting you up with the right medical attention for your particular injury or injuries, we work tirelessly to assist auto accident victims in obtaining a proper recovery to offset damages caused by a negligent party.
If you are experiencing pain in your neck or back after a car accident, getting an accurate diagnosis of your injuries is crucial. It’s important to be informed and to utilize qualified medical professionals and experienced personal injury lawyers to help you fully recover. Contact Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA today at 833-55-Crash.
Our vast experience handling neck and back injury from car accident claims often proves invaluable to our clients in countering the usual tactics and defenses employed by the insurance company. The insurance carrier will often argue every car accident-related medical issue is related to degenerative disc disease and the claimant would have inevitably had the very same spine injury regardless of the accident due to the simple degeneration of the spine that takes place as we get older. Hence, why hiring the best spine injury lawyer for your case is essential to recovering maximum compensation.
Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, P.A.
*The above information was written and reviewed by either Attorney Matthew Dolman or another injury lawyer at Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, P.A. which has a combined 100 plus years of experience practicing Florida personal injury law. The author of this article, Matthew Dolman himself has been practicing personal injury law in Clearwater and St. Petersburg for the last seventeen (17) years. The information provided comes from extensive research and years of experience trying legal cases in courtrooms throughout Florida. Stanley Gipe is a Florida Board Certified Civil Trial Lawyer. In other words, the Florida Bar authorizes Stan to call himself an expert in the field of trial law. Our firm has now handled in excess of 7500 individual personal injury cases. Further, we have handled thousands of claims and lawsuits involving a myriad of different spine injuries.