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 movement. 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:
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 makes 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.
Discogenic pain is caused by some sort of damage to the spinal disc. The most common injuries that cause pain in this area are: lumbar sprains, spinal stenosis, disc herniation, and a degenerative spinal disorder. The majority of people experience discogenic pain in the lumbar (lower) spine area.
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.
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.
Physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medications are usually the first steps in treating discogenic back pain. If these measures don’t bring significant relief, there are other non-surgical options that can prove successful in providing long lasting relief. For example, epidural corticosteroid injections 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 attorneys to help you fully recover. Call Dolman Law Group today at 727-451-6900.