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, 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:
Car Accident Back Pain
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 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 cause be 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.
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 professional, but they all generally refer to a very similar injury.
Degenerative Spinal Disorders
Degenerative disc disorders encompasses many different injuries and symptoms that all relate to the breaking down of the spine or its parts as the body ages. Degenerative Spainal Disorders can causes 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 stenosi, 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 are 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.
Treating Discogenic Pain
Physical therapist help 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 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 no 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 vertebrae. 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 wont completely bend backwards, forwards, or sideways. In order to properly perform this function, these joints have a large amount 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 an 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 diagnosis 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 physicians recommendation.
NSAID’s (also known as an 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 likeacetaminophen, aspirin, as well as prescription opioids such as oxycodone and morphine)
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) (ibuprofen, naproxen sodium)
- Anticonvulsants (primarily used to treat seizuresbut 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 often times 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 creates 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.
Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA has years of experience in assisting victims with neck and back pain. In addition to setting you up with the right doctors for your issue, we work tirelessly to assist 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 Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA today at 727-451-6900.
Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA
*The above information was written and reviewed by either Attorney Matthew Dolman or another injury lawyer at the Dolman Law Group which has a combined 90 plus years of experience practicing Florida personal injury law. Matthew Dolman himself has been practicing personal injury law in Clearwater and St. Petersburg for the last fifteen (15) years. The information provided comes from extensive research and years of experience trying legal cases in courtrooms throughout Florida.