Back Injuries from Car Accident | What to Expect

If you are having back pain after a car crash, you are not alone.  Our law office represents hundreds of victims every year who have suffered back pain – typically low back pain — from a car accident.  I’m hoping this post answers a lot of questions you might have if you have suffered a back injury from a car accident.

What is causing lower back pain after a car accident?

Being involved in a car accident can lead to a wide variety of injuries from bumps and bruises to broken bones and even death.  We have handled all of these types cases too many times. But of all the case we see, back injuries and the subsequent pain are common consequences of car collisions. If you were involved in a car accident, you may have wondered what caused your lower back pain.

backinjurylawyer-300x300First, whether your vehicle struck another vehicle, a stationary object, or suffered a rollover, a vehicle’s passengers experience a tremendous amount of force during an accident. This force strains muscles, joints, and bones and can cause serious injuries. Even if a passenger is wearing a seatbelt or is protected by an airbag during an accident, the force of car collision can cause a jerking motion often referred to as whiplash.

This can happen with little or no damage to the vehicle.  This is not just plaintiffs’ car accident lawyer puffery.  There are many scientific peer-reviewed articles that show that the damage done to the vehicle does not always reflect the damage to the occupants.  Can you break eggs in a carton without damaging the carton?

Whiplash can cause two types of lower back injuries – discogenic and facet joint injuries. Due to the physiology of the back and the proximity of the thirty-one pairs of nerves known as spinal cord lower back injuries can lead to nerve damage and paralysis.

What is the lower back physiology?

The lower back is made up of the five lowest vertebrae (referred to as L1-L5) and is known as the lumbar region. This complex system of joints, ligaments, and tendons is responsible for supporting much of weight of the upper body and protecting the spinal cord.

A series of intervertebral disks – rubbery donuts that act like cushions – serve as shock absorbers for the back. Disc herniation is a condition that occurs when the soft inner filling of the disc protrudes through the more robust outer encasing. Discogenic pain can be unpredictable and happen when a person is sitting, lying down or moving. Discogenic pain generally causes as a sharp, shooting pain that can radiate down the body.

What are some common lower back injuries?

Another type of back injury is a lumbar sprain. Lumbar sprains occur when muscle fibers are abnormally stretched or torn. Another common condition of the back is spinal stenosis, where a ruptured disc or bone fragment enters the spinal canal space, applying pressure to the nerves or spinal cord, which can lead to severe pain.

Facet joints work with the disks to facilitate and limit movement between the vertebrae. Cartilage surfaces surround facet joints and provide for low-friction motion. These joints define the back’s range of motion and prevent injury from occurring when a person bends too far in one direction.

Facet joints have a large number of nerve endings and damage to these joints and the nearby nerves can cause severe pain. Frequently, sufferers of facet joints injuries can cause muscle spasms, which may force the spine out of alignment causing back and neck pain. For example, a patient may experience a muscle spasm that causes the joint to freeze or lock in place; this can occur abruptly and without notice.

How do doctors diagnose back injuries?

Back injuries, whether discogenic or facet joint, can be challenging to diagnose because symptoms for both types of injuries can be very similar.

Doctors have a wide array of diagnostic tools to determine the cause of lower back pain. X-rays can record bony structures of the back and create an image that displays vertebral misalignment or fractures.  But x-rays are relevant in less than 1% of our car accident cases because the x-ray is useless in seeing soft tissue and disc injuries.  CT-scans, also known as computerized tomography, is used to see soft tissue structures and is used to diagnose herniated and ruptured disks, spinal stenosis, and tumors.

When doctors are still unable to diagnose a lower-back injury using x-ray and CT-scans, they can perform discography where they inject dyes into the affected area allowing for CT-scans with a higher degree of contrast and higher resolution images of the affected area. Doctors also use Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRI, which utilizes magnetic force to create 3D computer-generated images of both bone and soft tissue structures such as muscles, ligaments, tendons, and blood vessels.

What you have to know about back injuries is that if you had the top ten orthopedic doctors in the world examining you a few weeks after an accident,  they would have no idea of what the course of your injuries is going to be.  I see cases that seem like the injuries will resolve quickly and they end up being surgery cases.  I also see cases that look awful and the clients heal well and quickly.  It is so hard to know until the injuries play themselves out.

How do doctors classify back pain?

Doctors classify back pain as acute, sub-acute or chronic. Acute pain is short-term and lasts up to thirty days. Subacute pain can last one to three months, and the pain lasts for more than three months is called chronic. Most back pain is acute, and the underlying problem heals in a few days to a few weeks. About 20 percent of people affected by acute low back pain develop a chronic condition where the sufferer has persistent symptoms after one year.  In car accident cases, the statistics are probably a little bit higher.

What are some treatments for lower back pain?

Treatment for low back pain depends on whether the pain is acute or chronic. For acute pain, the first level treatment often begins with hot or cold packs, which may help ease pain and reduce inflammation. Doctors often recommend that back pain sufferers remain active. Individuals suffering from acute back pain are encouraged to begin stretching exercises and resume normal daily activities as soon as possible.

Following a back injury, patients often visit physical therapists, who can facilitate specific exercises that promote flexibility and muscle strengthening. Lower back pain sufferers may seek out chiropractic services where professionally licensed specialists use their hands to massage, adjust or stimulate the spine and the surrounding tissues.

Doctors also have a wide range of medications that can be used to treat lower back pain. These medications range from over-the-counter analgesic’s like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium and aspirin to more powerful painkillers like morphine or OxyContin. In 2018, doctors are turning off the faucet for many victims on some of these opiods based on the new awareness of the harm they can cause.  Doctors may also prescribe anti-inflammatory or muscle relaxing drugs.

What are some nontraditional treatments for lower back pain?

There are several common nontraditional treatments for lower back pain including acupuncture, biofeedback, and yoga. Acupuncture involves the insertion of thin needles into precise points throughout the body. Some practitioners believe acupuncture can clear away blockages in the body’s life force known as Qi (pronounced chee). Another theory is that acupuncture causes the body to release naturally occurring painkilling chemicals such as endorphins, serotonin, and acetylcholine.

accident_sceneI have always been of two minds on acupuncture.  Certainly, the insurance companies (and some judges) resist paying for acupuncture.  But there is science behind it, juries generally get it, and it provides real relief for some who are suffering.

Biofeedback is a procedure where electrodes are attached to the skin and stimulated with an electromyography machine. Biofeedback teaches people to self-regulate their breathing, muscle tension, and heart rate and use relaxation techniques in order to respond to pain. Biofeedback is often used in combination with other treatment methods.

Does this work?  It certainly can help.  But if you have a herniated disc impinging on a nerve root, mind over matter will only go so far.  Similarly, yoga has also become a common treatment for lower back pain, and practitioners believe some yoga poses can address both the symptoms and causes of lower back pain.

Other treatments utilized by doctors may include nerve block therapies which may include injections of anesthetics, botulinum toxin, or steroids into the back. In other rarer instances, doctors utilize epidural steroid injections for short-term treatment of pain.  Our clients have had all kinds of results from steroid injections.  Some report the injections saved their life and others noticed little to no difference.  It is amazing how much the results vary from treatment from patient to patient.

Some pain relief practitioners are utilizing transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation or TENS. The treatment involves wearing a battery-powered device that consists of electrodes placed on the skin over the painful area. These electrodes generate electrical impulses that stimulate the nervous system and block incoming pain signals from peripheral nerves.

Is surgery an option for lower back pain?

As last resort lower back pain sufferers may elect to undergo surgery. Surgery is only considered an option for treatment when the pain is chronic, debilitating, and affecting the patient’s sleep or daily activities.

Two minimally invasive treatment used to treat compression fractures are vertebroplasty and kyphoplasty. Vertebroplasty utilizes three-dimensional imaging to assist in guiding a fine needle into the largest part of the vertebrae and then a viscous bone cement is injected into space. The bone cement quickly hardens and stabilizes the bone. In kyphoplasty, prior to injecting the bone cement, a balloon is inserted and inflated to restore the correct spacing between the vertebrae structure.

There are many types of surgery utilized to treat back injuries. Two surgeries used to treat back injuries suffered during car collisions are discectomy and laminectomy. A discectomy is a procedure that involves the removal of the herniated portion of a disk to relieve irritation and inflammation of a nerve. A laminectomy is a less invasive procedure where surgeons remove a bone fragment that extends into the spinal canal. In some cases, doctors use a technique that permanently connects two or more bones in the spine. Spinal fusion relieves pain by adding stability to a spinal fracture or misalignment. Surgeons are also using artificial disks, which are relatively new devices and are not an option for most people.

How much money do back injury cases settle for when bringing a personal injury claim?

It is impossible to give an average back injury settlement number in a vacuum with completely misleading victims.  But here are some statistics and sample verdicts and settlement in back injury cases.

In general, it is fair to say that preexisting injuries like spondylosis tend to get lower jury verdicts than acute back injuries from a crash.  But that is a very general statement, right?  I have handled preexisting injury cases that settled for seven figures.

What should you do if you suffered a lower back injury as the result of a car collision?

If you have been injured in a car collision and have suffered a lower back injury, experienced counsel can help you to get the compensation you deserve. The attorneys at Miller & Zois have the experience and the resources to guide you through the complicated issues that can arise out of a car collision. We and stand up to the insurance companies to fight for equitable compensation.
If you or someone you know was injured due to a motor vehicle collision, select here for a free consultation or call 800-553-8082 to speak with an attorney who can help figure out what the best path is for you or get a free online claim evaluation.