Back Injury From Car Accident

Common injuries from car accidents include soft tissue injuries such as sprains, strains and spine injuries such as fractures and herniated discs.

Author: Brad Nakase, Attorney

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This article is broken into three parts: 1) Common back injuries from car accidents, 2) Symptoms of spine injury, and 3) Types of car accidents associated with types of back pain; for example, a frontal impact accident will cause injury to the neck and a high-speed accident will cause a fracture to the mid-back and lower-back.

How am I qualified to write about common back pain after a car accident? As car accident attorney in California since 2005, I’ve represented thousands of parties in car accidents and personal injuries resulting in back and spine injuries. The type of car accident will determine the kind of back injury a person will experience.

Common back injuries from car accident

The spinal column extends from the base of the skull to the tip of the tailbone. This column is composed of 33 vertebrae, all of which send neural signals to the brain and to the rest of the body. A car accident can easily injure a part of the spinal cord or column, leading to issues with the rest of the body.

A car accident can result in a number of different back injuries, though many problems result from whiplash. Whiplash injures the soft tissue and can cause many other serious spinal issues. These injuries include sprains, strains, herniated discs, and fractures. Also, if an individual suffered previous problems such as spinal stenosis, then a car collision can worsen the preexisting condition.

The symptoms of a back injury after a car crash can vary greatly, and an individual may suffer from one or more types of injury. It can also be difficult to diagnose the exact cause of pain without running tests. This is because different injuries may present similar symptoms.

  • Whiplash

Whiplash is a very common injury that results from car accidents. It consists of pain and stiffness caused by the sudden overextension of the neck. Even in low-speed accidents, there can be significant pain and suffering. Symptoms of whiplash include headaches, poor concentration, trouble sleeping, vision problems, tinnitus, depression, weakness, and pain in adjacent areas of the body. Most cases of whiplash go away on their own within a few weeks and are not worthy of a lawsuit. However, there are cases where whiplash is more severe.

  • Lumbar or Thoracic Vertebrae Fractures

A spinal fracture occurs when one or more vertebrae crack, break, or are otherwise injured. The human body has 33 bones that protect the spinal cord and make up the backbone. When one of these is injured, the individual may be said to have a broken back. A doctor may use the following terms to describe a back fracture:

    • Burst Fracture – This occurs when multiple parts of the vertebrae are crushed and bone fragments have scattered.
    • Flexion Fractures – This is when a vertebra breaks; fractures usually happen in the middle or posterior columns of the spine.
    • Compression Fracture – When too much pressure is applied, there can be cracks or breaks in the vertebrae
    • Fracture dislocation – This is a combination of a fracture and a dislocation of the vertebra or vertebrae.

  • Back Sprains and Strains

When an individual suffers a back strain, this means that their soft tissue is overstretched, which causes injury. A strain refers to the tendons of the back, which connect the bones to muscles. By contrast, a back sprain causes damage to the ligaments that connect joints to bones or bones to other bones.

Sprains and strains alike can cause pain that is hard to get rid of. Because imaging cannot pick up on this kind of injury, it is important to talk about the possibility with one’s doctor.

  • Fractured Vertebrae Spinal Cord Injury

Most spinal cord injuries occur as a result of damage to the vertebral column. Car collisions are the main cause of spinal trauma for individuals younger than 65 years of age. A complete spinal cord injury interrupts sensory and motor function below the site of the injury. An incomplete spinal cord injury results in partially limited function. Symptoms of a spinal cord injury include breathing issues and loss of bladder and bowel function.

  • Herniated or Bulging Disc

Car accidents can cause damage to intervertebral discs. If a disc is damaged, it may become inflamed, which means swelling. This swelling irritates the nerves and causes pain. When a disc ruptures and its contents are exposed, then a hernia has happened. A herniated disc is very likely to put pressure on nerve roots, which causes severe pain.

  • Pinched Nerve/Radiculopathy

The spinal column is very condensed, so problems can easily arise when damage occurs. Changes in the tissues that surround nerve roots can result in a pinched nerve. A pinched nerve can cause pain, numbness, and weakness that radiates to connected parts of the body. This problem is known as radiculopathy. Herniated discs are often a cause of pinched nerves.

  • C4/C5 and C5/C6 Disc Injury Cases

These are the most typical intervertebral disc injuries that occur in the neck. Symptoms include pain and weakness in the arms and shoulders. These symptoms can be especially taxing on individuals in physically demanding lines of work.

  • Degenerative Disc Disease

As an individual ages, his or her intervertebral discs begin to deteriorate due to wear-and-tear. That said, not everyone with degenerative disc disease experiences symptoms. A serious injury, such as that caused by a car accident, can encourage degeneration, or activate symptoms of the disease.

  • Central Cord Syndrome

If the neck is extended by force, the spinal cord may be squeezed and injured. The cord will bleed, swell, and bruise. The center of the spinal cord, which endures the most severe damage, controls movement of the arms. As a result, weakness of the arms is a symptom of this injury, which can make it hard to do everyday tasks. The legs and other regions of the body may also be impacted.

  • Facet Joint Injuries

Facet joints are located between the bones of the spine. Nerve roots run through the joints into different regions of the body, such as the legs and arms. Facet joints allow an individual to bend or twist without damaging the spine. A damaged facet joint, however, can cause pain.

Thinning cartilage or previous untreated trauma to the spine can cause problems with facet joints. Muscles may spasm or tighten as a result, which can cause the outside of the back to feel tender or endure radiating pain.

  • Secondary Complications

Secondary complications associated with spinal cord injuries include cardiovascular, respiratory, urinary, and bowel problems, as well as muscular pain, pressure ulcers, sexual and fertility issues, osteoporosis, bone fractures, and depression.

Further, studies have discovered a link between spine injuries and head trauma. Patients with spinal cord injuries are later diagnosed with a brain injury between 24% and 50% of the time. Approximately one-third of patients with cervical spine or spinal cord injuries also have mile to severe head injuries.

What happens if your spine is injured?

A spinal cord injury often causes symptoms, including tingling, numbness, or loss of sensation in the feet and hands. After a car crash, it is common to feel sore, which can make it hard to determine which pain is related to the back specifically. It can be helpful to know what to expect after a car accident by consulting with a personal injury attorney in California.

Because the spine includes the large area from the neck to the pelvis, pain can radiate to many different regions of the body. After a car accident, back pain may come from inflammation, fractures, and compressed nerves. The symptoms may be uncomfortable but manageable, or they may make everyday tasks impossible to perform.

After a car accident, one may experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Tingling or numbness – Because the spinal cord connects the body’s limbs, tense muscles can pinch nerves, which may lead to feelings of tingling or numbness in the hands, feet, legs, or arms.
  • Muscle spasms – A muscle may repeatedly twitch, feel like a hard knot, or feel tender when touched. Muscle spasms vary when it comes to pain; they may be mild or debilitating.
  • Burning pain – A harsh pain may move down one’s back and buttocks through the back of both legs. This can be a mild pain that goes away, or it can be a burning discomfort that lasts for days.
  • Stiffnes – An individual may not feet as flexible after a car accident due to their muscles tensing up. This kind of stiffness may go away after some stretching, or it may be continuous.
  • Sharp pain – Changing positions, such as sitting up or standing, can cause a sharp pain in one’s back.
  • Pain when walking or standing – Sometimes, physical activity in itself is painful, causing a throbbing sensation or mild pain when one does daily tasks.

However, if an individual is experiencing headaches, disorientation, or dizziness after a car collision, then it is likely he or she has endured damage to their cervical vertebrae from whiplash.

It is important that an individual make note of their symptoms, including tracking what activities worsen the pain and how often the discomfort occurs.

Types of Car Accidents and Associated Back Injuries

The cervical spine, or neck, is the most commonly injured part of the spine in car accidents. While seat belts are beneficial, they allow the neck to bend forcefully to the front, side, or back while keeping the rest of the body in place. Colliding with seatbelts can cause injuries to other parts of the spine.

In the case of frontal-impact accidents, the head and torso are thrust forward. But they may move forward at different speeds, which damages the cervical part of the spine. It is common to have tears and herniation of intervertebral discs in the neck, especially the C5/C6 vertebrae. When the seat belt stops the forward motion of the torso but the head continues to move forward in a frontal accident, severe spinal cord injuries may result.

High-speed accidents can also cause a fracture in the thoracic or lumbar spine due to the bending of the spine against the seatbelt. With a chance fracture, the front of the spine is compressed, and the back of the spine is split apart, which can potentially crush or tear the spinal cord.

With rear-end accidents, the struck car is pushed forward, which pushes the individual’s torso into the seatback. The torso pushes back and up until it is stopped by the lap restraint, which puts pressure on the thoracic vertebrae and discs.

The neck, meanwhile, snaps backward which can cause whiplash and possibly damage the cervical vertebrae, ligaments, discs, or spinal cord. The lumbar area of the spine might also be impacted by the lap restraint and the effect of being pushed into the seatback.

Side-impact accidents usually cause more damage to occupants of the vehicle who are sitting on the side of the impact. As opposed to rear- and frontal-impact crashes, where the body moves forward or back, side-impact accidents cause the body to move sideways. In these crashes, the seatbelt keeps the lower body in place but does not restrain the torso, neck, or head. The upper body may slip out of the seatbelt, which can cause more damaging sideways bending and impact with the door of the car.

With regard to motorcycle accidents, the thoracic spine is the most commonly injured part of the spine. While cars have seatbelts that cause the body to bend at the neck in crashes, motorcycles have no seatbelts, which means the body bends at the midsection. In over half of motorcycle accidents, damage occurs to multiple parts of the spine. Motorcycle accidents that cause spinal injuries are deadly in about 10% of cases.

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