When people are in an accident, one area that you hear them say they injured is their back. It may seem like the back is a relatively simple, singular, large part of the body. However, the back is actually made up of a number of complex structures, which can lead to a number of different kinds of injuries that can vary in their severity, seriousness, and how much they can disable you after an accident.
To understand the different types of back injuries, it is important to try to understand the anatomy of the back, and how your back actually works.
You may have seen skeletal models or pictures, showing the individual, bony structures that go up and down your back. These bones are there for a reason: They protect the delicate nerves that make up your spine. Your spinal nerves or the spinal column run through these bones, and these bones act like a shield so that you are not paralyzed from a slight impact to your back.
But of course, bones do not move, which is why each bone is separate—specifically, each one is a vertebra. To keep the vertebrae from rubbing against each other and causing pain as you move, there are soft, jelly-like substances between each one, called discs. These discs allow you to flex your back, and move it in any position that you want.
The vertebrae are held to other vertebrae by ligaments, which attach bones to each other. Ligaments are everywhere in your body, not just your back (in fact you may have heard of popular athletes suffering anterior cruciate ligament injuries in their knees). Ligaments also connect your bones to muscles.
Because they connect your skeleton to itself and to your muscles, ligaments are always moving and can be easily stretched or torn in an accident.
When a ligament is injured in the back (lumbar) or neck (cervical) area, it is called a sprain or a strain (sometimes, these injuries are called “whiplash,” but they certainly can be more serious than what that word implies).
Sprains and strains often do not show up on traditional scans or X-rays, certainly not on ones that are done at the typical emergency room. Additionally, it can sometimes take a few hours, even a full day, before the victim feels pain.
Just as these injuries are slow to manifest themselves, they can be slow to heal—although not considered the most serious back injury, sprains and strains can be debilitating, painful, and though they may improve over time, in many cases, they never fully heal, and the victim will have pain that can vary between daily and intermittent.
Since vertebrae are bones, they can break or fracture. Vertebra can be damaged by being pulled apart, being “squeezed” due to an impact such as a fall, or when there is compression of some kind on the spine.
Fractures to vertebrae usually can be seen on traditional X-rays, and often are diagnosed in hospital emergency rooms right after an accident.
Just like anywhere else in your body, the severity of a spinal fracture can vary. Thankfully, smaller fractures can heal on their own, with some rest and immobility, and most fractures do not affect the spinal nerves or the use or function of the body.
But more significant fractures may displace parts of the vertebra and may require surgical intervention. Very serious fractures can move the vertebrae enough that they threaten the spinal cord, and thus, carry a risk of paralysis, and surgical intervention may be needed.
Remember those jelly-like discs that allowed your vertebrae to move around freely, and kept your vertebrae from rubbing against each other? They can be injured also. Often, in an accident, the vertebrae in your spine can have so much force put on them, that they can squeeze the discs in your back too much, and the discs can either jut out of place, or they can rupture, spilling part of what is inside of them.
In either case, you can be in serious pain because of how close those discs are to your spinal cord. If a disc juts out just enough to touch or rub against your spinal cord, you can be left with serious, ongoing pain. The pain may also show up as numbness, tingling in your extremities, or feelings that your extremities are burning.
In more serious cases, the discs can impinge on your spinal cord so much that you may lose bladder or bowel control. You may experience weakness in your muscles or shooting pain.
Even if the ruptured or herniated disc does not intrude on the spinal cord, the disc can be flattened enough that vertebrae in your back start to rub against each other, causing you pain as they grind against each other, wearing down. In the long term, osteoarthritis or bone spurs in the back can result from a lack of cushion from the discs.
There are some surgical options for disc injuries, such as having a disc removed, and then fusing the surrounding vertebrae together, or implanting an artificial disc. Short of surgery, the victim may need to get epidural steroid injections, which can, for extended periods of time, alleviate pain, but they are not a permanent solution or repair to the ruptured or herniated discs themselves.
It is true that your discs naturally flatten, or jut out of place, over time, as you age, especially if you engage in a lot of physical activity. Your doctor can assist you in determining whether your herniated disc is a result of your accident or some other cause.
Of course, the worst back injury someone can have will result in paralysis. Paralysis is where a vertebra or a disc has been so moved out of place because of an impact, that it “cuts off” or completely severs the nerves in your spine, which are how your brain tells your body to move or perform other vital functions.
Think of paralysis as being a bridge that is missing a piece or a roadway that has been blocked by a large boulder. The signals that need to move along the “roadway” of your spinal nerves cannot get from Point A to Point B.
The location of the injury can determine what areas of the body are affected. Paraplegia is when only the legs or lower body is affected, and full quadriplegia is paralysis everywhere below the neck.
Immediately after a serious accident, doctors may suggest emergency surgery to try to alleviate as much pressure on the spinal nerves as possible, as quickly as possible, to minimize the severity and extent of any long-term paralysis.
Contrary to popular belief, paralysis is not all or nothing; many people suffer partial paralysis, which may leave them with some function or feeling in the affected areas.
There is some evidence to show that getting immediate medical attention and therapy after a potentially paralyzing injury, can return some function to paralyzed areas. However, the research also shows that the therapy and treatment must be given quickly after the accident for it to be effective.
There is currently no complete cure for paralysis, and lifelong medical attention for paralysis victims can be very expensive, depending on the nature and extent of the disability and injury that is suffered. In many lawsuits involving paralysis, experts will be brought in to explain to the jury the lifelong expenses that the victim will incur because of the paralysis (which can grow into millions of dollars).
As you can see, there is a wide variety of anatomy in your back that can be injured, when you are involved in an accident. Your back is a complex structure which is why every back injury should be taken seriously.
In many cases, hospital emergency rooms are not equipped to do a full diagnosis. That is why you should get medical help and attention from a specialist immediately after an accident. Never ignore signs and symptoms immediately after an accident, as they could indicate more serious problems. As you have seen, many back injuries can more effectively heal when they are treated right away.
If you have a back injury of any kind, serious or minor, you need legal help. The insurance company will not simply admit you have a back injury–in fact, back injuries are injuries that insurance companies and defendants often fight the hardest.
Call our Schaumburg back injury lawyers at Claim Your Justice to schedule a free consultation at 847-434-3555 to help you if you have suffered any kind of back injury.
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