Spinal Injury from Car Accident: Effects and What to Do Next

Spinal cord injuries are the most severe, life-changing type of back injury that can occur during a car crash. Of the 17,730 new spinal cord injuries that occur each year in the United States, nearly 40% are from a car accident, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCISC).

If you believe you’ve injured your spinal cord in a traumatic auto accident, seek immediate medical care. Not every spinal injury from a car accident is apparent right away, and the seriousness of your symptoms can significantly worsen over the following days or weeks.

Do not wait to learn if you’ve sustained a spinal cord injury. Visit a doctor as soon as possible. If you have suffered a back injury from a motor vehicle accident, you may need to file a personal injury claim to recoup expenses like medical bills and lost wages. Here’s what you need to know.

What is a Spinal Cord Injury?

The spinal cord is a long band of nervous tissue that connects the brain with the rest of the body. The spinal cord, brain, and spinal nerves form the central nervous system (CNS). A spinal cord injury (SCI) occurs when any part of the spinal cord is damaged. A spinal injury from a car accident can damage the CNS and interrupt the nerve flow necessary for motor function and sensory skills.

A spinal injury that causes loss of mobility or sensation is called paralysis. The severity of paralysis is referred to as “the completeness” of the injury and is classified as either incomplete or complete. A back injury is incomplete if the victim has some sensory or motor function below the point of injury. An injury is complete if they’ve lost all sensory and motor functions.

Paralysis from a spinal cord injury can also be referred to as paraplegia or quadriplegia:

  • Paraplegia is when all or parts of the legs, trunk, and pelvic organs are affected by the injury. This classification is common when the injury occurs lower in the back, such as the lumbar spine or low back.
  • Quadriplegia, also known as tetraplegia, is when all or parts of the arms, hands, legs, trunk, and pelvic organs are affected by the injury. This classification is more common when the injury occurs higher in the back, such as in the cervical spine or top of the neck.

How Do Car Accidents Cause These Injuries?

The spinal column, home to the spinal cord, is at constant risk of injury during a vehicle crash. When the weight of one 2,800-pound vehicle collides with another 2,800-pound vehicle, the force of impact can propel the much lighter human passenger forward. Often, the only thing to stop this forward motion is a hard surface, like the steering wheel or even the pavement.

The sheer force with which an accident victim can strike another surface during a crash is enough to damage the spinal column and injure the spinal cord. Even a collision at low speeds can force an accident victim to twist or bend unnaturally and damage the spinal column. This dangerous force can explain why auto accidents have been the leading cause of spinal injuries since the 1970s.

Spinal Cord Injury Symptoms: Severe Back Pain and Weakness

The telltale sign of a spinal cord injury is severe back pain. However, not every spinal injury symptom is apparent right away, and the seriousness of your symptoms can significantly worsen over time. Injury symptoms that develop days or even weeks post-accident are referred to as delayed pain. These symptoms require medical attention, no matter when they develop.

Immediate and delayed symptoms that may indicate a spinal cord injury include:

  • Neck pain and stiffness
  • Dizziness or confusion
  • Headache at the base of the skull
  • Muscle spasms in the back, arms, or legs
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms and legs
  • Radiating or stabbing pain down the arms and legs
  • Loss or limited sensation, such as the ability to feel heat or cold
  • Loss of or limited mobility

Accident victims experiencing the following spinal injury symptoms should seek emergency medical care as soon as possible:

  • Difficulty standing or walking
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Difficulty breathing or coughing
  • Immense pressure in the neck and back
  • Inability to balance or coordinate movement
  • Numbness or loss of sensation in the fingers, hands, toes, or feet
  • Weakness or paralysis anywhere in the body

The Effects of Spinal Cord Injuries

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Spinal cord injuries are life-changing. Accident victims will encounter the initial impacts on their physical and mental health, and the long-term effects on their quality of life. Even if the injury improves over time, a spinal injury from a car accident can cause extreme back pain, weakness, and loss of bowel or bladder control for months or even years.

The unfortunate fact is that most accident victims will likely have to deal with chronic pain from nerve damage and degenerative conditions for the rest of their lives. Just 0.6% of SCI patients return to normal sensation and function, whereas 59.9% suffer from tetraplegia, and 39.5% live with paraplegia. More than 30% of SCI patients are re-hospitalized at least once a year after their injury.

The majority of spinal injury patients who are rehospitalized remain in the hospital for an average of 19 days, causing a spike in medical expenses. Reproductive and urinary diseases are the top reasons for rehospitalization; however, musculoskeletal problems are also high on the list. Muscle spasticity (muscle spasms), spinal stenosis, and osteoarthritis are common SCI side effects.

What to Do if You Suspect Someone Has a Spinal Cord Injury

Do not hesitate to contact 911 or your local emergency care number if you suspect someone has a spinal cord injury.

Severe spine injuries may not be obvious, and numbness or paralysis can be delayed by several minutes or hours. The time between the vehicle crash and medical attention is critical for the accident victim, so always err on the side of caution and seek help.

The Mayo Clinic recommends never attempting to move the injured person or shift the position of their neck and head. Instead, keep the person still and calm. Provide basic first aid while emergency services are on the way, such as applying pressure on a wound to stop the bleeding. If you need to move the accident victim’s body, wait until emergency personnel arrive.

Other Types of Spine and Back Injuries

In addition to the spinal cord, the spine is made up of the spinal canal and the spinal column. These two structures extend from the base of the skull to the lower back. The spinal column is made up of 33 small bones called vertebrae, which are protected by individual intervertebral discs. A variety of connective tissue, like ligaments and facet joints, keep the spinal column together.

Here’s a look at other types of back injuries from a car crash that can impact these important spinal structures.

Vertebral Fractures

A vertebral fracture is a partial or complete break in one of the small triangular bones that make up the spine. Also referred to as a spinal fracture, this break is common during traumatic auto accidents. The blunt force trauma of a crash can cause small cracks in the bone’s surface, called hairline fractures, or completely shatter the bone.

There are three primary types of vertebral fractures.

  1. Flexion-Distraction Fracture: Occurs when the upper back (cervical spine) is thrust forward while the lower back (lumbar spine) remains in place. More than 50% of vertebral fractures from a car accident are to the cervical spine and are common in accidents where a seatbelt restrains the victim.
  2. Vertebral Compression Fracture (VCF): Occurs when the front half of the vertebrae collapses while the back half remains in place. Though less common than a flexion-distraction fracture, a VCF is likely to occur in the middle back (thoracic spine) in a high-speed collision.
  3. Burst Fracture: Occurs when the vertebrae fractures in multiple places and bony fragments penetrate the spinal canal or actual spinal cord. This is the most severe fracture and can result in paralysis. Burst fractures are common after traumatic roll-over collisions or truck accidents.

Herniated Discs

An intervertebral disc, sometimes called a spinal disc, protects vertebrae and acts as a shock absorber for the spine. Each disc has a soft, jelly-like interior and hard exterior. A herniated disc, or ruptured disc, occurs when the pressure of an outside force causes a crack in the disc’s exterior that allows the interior liquid to leak into the spinal canal.

The initial disc herniation causes a lot of swelling in the spinal canal, which can press on surrounding nerves and nerve roots. The disc contents that leak into the spinal canal can put pressure on the spinal cord, causing numbness, tingling, or shooting pain. This type of nerve damage is most common in the lumbar spine or lower back.

Whiplash

A whiplash injury is one of the most common causes of neck pain after an accident. Whiplash, also known as a neck sprain, is a neck injury that impacts facet joints and soft tissue. It occurs when some type of force, such as a car accident, thrusts the head and neck forward and backward.

The rapid back and forth motion can stretch and tear the structures in the cervical spine, especially connective tissue like ligaments. Though one of the more common injuries after a crash, whiplash can cause ongoing side effects like neck pain and dizziness for months or even years.

Spinal Cord and Back Injury Treatment and Recovery

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Treatment for spine injuries begins with a proper diagnosis. Typically, a doctor will review your medical history and the facts of the car accident, then order a variety of tests to assess the damage. The types of tests used to diagnose a spinal injury from a car accident include x-rays, computed tomography (CT scans), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and evoked potential testing.

The time it takes to recover from a spinal injury depends on the severity of the injury and whether the spinal cord was damaged. Common back injuries like a herniated disc or spinal fracture may heal within six to twelve weeks and require chiropractic care, physical therapy, and pain medication. More severe spinal cord injuries can take years to heal or cause lifelong damage like paralysis.

A spinal cord specialist, neurosurgeon, or orthopedic surgeon is the type of doctor who treats a severe spinal cord injury like paralysis. In contrast, a chiropractor or family doctor can treat more minor back injuries. The insurance company may help out with medical bills, but the amount of coverage will rely on your provider, and you may still need to pay copays or deductibles for certain medical expenses. In other words, recovery from a spinal injury is often long and expensive.

Can You File a Lawsuit for Injuries to the Spine after a Car Crash?

Yes, you can file a lawsuit for a spinal injury from a car accident. Spinal injuries are not only incredibly difficult and irreversibly life-changing, but they are also very expensive. The medical bills for a complete spinal cord injury can cost upwards of $1 million the first year, and incur more than $180,000 of medical expenses each year that follows. Victims do not deserve medical debt.

The purpose of a personal injury lawsuit is to recoup the expenses incurred as a result of the injury, such as medical bills, lost wages, loss of future income, and household medical care. A lawsuit can also compensate accident victims for damages that aren’t monetary, like pain and suffering from debilitating chronic pain or depression and anxiety from life changes.

If you’ve suffered a spinal injury from a car accident that was little to no fault of your own, you should reach out to a personal injury law firm to learn if you have grounds for a lawsuit. A personal injury attorney can help you gather all of the necessary documentation to file a lawsuit and negotiate on your behalf. You can focus on healing, not on how you will pay your debts.

Get Help from David Bryant Law for Spinal Injuries

A spinal injury from a car accident can flip your life upside down in a matter of minutes. If you’ve recently been involved in a vehicle collision and believe you’ve suffered a spine injury, seek medical attention as soon as possible. Once you begin treatment, reach out to a trusted personal injury lawyer to learn how to receive compensation for your medical expenses.

At David Bryant Law, someone is always ready to take your call. Contact us today for a free consultation to learn if you have grounds to file a spine injury lawsuit.

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David G. Bryant is certified to practice in all state courts in Kentucky, and federal courts in the Eastern and Western districts of Kentucky, Southern District of New York, Southern District of West Virginia, Northern District of Ohio, Middle District of Tennessee, and Western District of Pennsylvania. He is licensed to practice before the United States Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.