Each day, thousands of people are hurt in head-on, side-impact, and rear-end car accidents. There are a range of injuries in these accidents, but back injuries are the most frequently reported. They can range from mild sprains and bruises to fractured vertebrae, disk herniation, and spinal cord damage.
Driver distraction, recklessness, fatigue, intoxication, and weather are just a few of the causes of car accident back injuries. Medical treatment and therapy are often costly, ranging from a few thousand dollars to well over $100,000.
Auto collisions often result in questions about liability. Who caused the accident and whose insurance will pay are among the most frequent. If you, a friend, or a loved one suffered a back injury in a car accident, this section will help. In it, we cover:
- Common back injuries in car accidents
- Diagnostics and treatment
- Proof of liability
- Handling your own insurance claim
- When to hire an attorney
Common Back Injuries
Almost all cars on the road today have seatbelts and airbags. Although seatbelts and airbags are instrumental in saving many lives, injuries still occur. Unfortunately, the most frequent are back injuries. The human back is a made up of a complex network of tendons, muscles, and ligaments that are intertwined around the vertebrae, the disks, and the spinal cord.
Depending on the force of impact in a car accident, one or more parts of the back can be injured. Because the spinal cord runs the full length of the back, any injury to the back is serious.
If you had a car accident, it’s important to notice any symptoms of a back injury. These injuries can worsen if not treated promptly. Common back injury symptoms are pain radiating up or down your legs, weakening of your muscles, numbness in your extremities, and general intermittent back pain.
Your vertebra runs from your neck to your lower back. It has 24 separate vertebrae. Between those vertebrae are 23 disks. They act as cushions, or shock absorbers, for the entire vertebra. Directly behind the vertebra is your spine. Surrounding your spine and vertebra are a maze of tendons, ligaments, muscles, and nerves.
Your vertebra has three different sections. The cervical vertebra is behind the neck and contains six disks. The thoracic vertebra runs down the center of your back and contains twelve disks. The lumbar vertebra is located in your lower back region and has five disks.
A tightly knit fabric of nerve endings surrounds the vertebra and the spine. When one or more of these nerve endings comes in contact with damaged soft tissue, herniated or bulging disks, fractured vertebrae, or a bruised spinal cord, the resulting pain can range anywhere from mild to excruciating and debilitating.
Herniated and bulging discs
There are 23 disks located in the vertebra. They sit between 24 vertebrae. When you suffer trauma to the back, one or more of the disks can become herniated or bulged. Disk herniation occurs when a disk breaks open and part of the inner cartilage protrudes outward. Disk bulging happens when the damage pushes or squeezes a disk out of its natural position between the vertebrae.
Soft tissue bruising and tearing
During a collision, any number of soft tissue ligaments, tendons, and muscles surrounding the vertebra can violently stretch or tear. When this type of back injury occurs, it affects thousands of nerve endings, resulting in mild to excruciating pain.
The trauma brought on from the force of impact causes the front (anterior) part of the vertebra and spine to compress downward. The vertebra fractures as it compresses.
The impact’s force causes multiple vertebrae in the cervical and lumbar regions to disintegrate. The result is sometimes a loss of mass in the ends of the cervical and lumbar region of the vertebra.
Flexion distraction fractures
Flexion distraction fractures occur most often in head-on crashes when occupants are wearing seatbelts. At the point of impact, the upper vertebra and spinal cord bend violently forward. Because the seatbelt firmly holds the lower back and pelvis, it acts as an anchor. The upper body’s violent movement, even with the seatbelt, exerts so much pressure on the upper back that the vertebra fractures.
Transverse process fractures
In a collision, an occupant’s vertebra and spine can pitch forward, backward, and side to side. The vertebra and spine can twist well past their natural radius, resulting in a transverse (crosswise) fracture.
Dislocated fractures are among the most common back injuries resulting from vehicle collisions. When one or more vertebrae fracture, soft tissue from other areas around the disk moves into the damaged area.
Diagnostic Tools and Treatments
X-rays are a basic diagnostic tool used to identify bone fractures and spine misalignment in back injuries. Medical personnel normally use them with MRIs and CT scans. X-ray costs range from $100 to $1,500.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging Scan (MRI)
An MRI scan can detect injuries to the spine and surrounding nerves. It’s an excellent diagnostic tool to assess misalignment and damage to the spine, herniated disks, and nerve damage. MRI costs range from $1,500 to $5,000.
Computer Axial Tomography Scans (CT, or CAT scan)
A CT scan often identifies damage to the disks and spinal cord. It’s an excellent tool for assessing cartilage and fluid damage when disks rupture. It also accurately measures the density and degree of fracture to vertebrae. CT scans range from $700 to $4,000.
The most commonly prescribed non-narcotic, non-steroidal medications for soft tissue back injuries are ibuprofen, Ketoprofen, and Naproxen. Depending upon the degree of pain and discomfort, some doctors prescribe stronger narcotic pain relievers such as Vicodin, codeine, Percoset, and Stadol.
Chiropractic care and physical therapy for soft tissue injuries
For mild, soft tissue injuries like strains, sprains, and slight tearing of ligaments, tendons, and muscles, doctors recommend a combination of bed rest and physical therapy. Chiropractic or physical therapy and massages follow the bed rest. Most people recover from soft tissue back injuries within a month or so.
During laminectomy surgery, the surgeon removes a small part of the damaged vertebrae called the lamina. The surgeon also removes damaged disk material, like fluids and exposed cartilage, from the affected nerve area to relieve pain and discomfort. Laminectomies range from $60,000 to more than $100,000.
Kyphoplasty and percutaneous vertebroplasty
Kyphoplasty surgery uses a small balloon-like expander inserted into the disk area between the vertebrae. The balloon expands the vertebrae, so during the ensuing percutaneous (through the skin) vertebroplasty surgery, the surgeon can inject the “cement,” called polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA) into the damaged vertebra. This strengthens the vertebra, making it more durable.
Some surgeons believe while the surgery does strengthen vertebrae material, it doesn’t decrease the pain and discomfort when the vertebrae press up against the nerve endings. Kyphoplasty and percutaneous vertebroplasty surgery ranges from $14,000 to $16,000.
An endoscopy is a minimally invasive surgery. The surgeon inserts a small tube – the endoscope – into the vertebra through a small incision. At the end of the endoscope is a miniature camera. The camera helps the surgeon to identify and treat pinched or compressed nerves and identify vertebrae that may need fusing. Endoscopic surgery ranges from $6,000 to $8,000.
Spinal fusion, also called spondylodesis
Spinal fusion surgery joins two or more vertebrae together. In spinal fusion surgery, the surgeons graft bone tissue from the patient or a matching donor and fuse it to the damaged vertebrae. Because the tissue is natural to the body, it becomes part of the existing tissue, strengthening it. Spinal fusions range from $25,000 to $50,000.
Artificial Disk Replacement (ADR)
Surgeons perform artificial disk replacement surgery when the damage to one or more disks is so severe that self-healing is not an option. During ADR surgery, the surgeon substitutes the severely damaged disk with a prosthetic artificial disk replacement (ADR). ADRs cost from $11,000 to $15,000.
During microdiscectomy surgery, the surgeon removes the damaged disk material pressing up against the nerve ending. Doing this often immediately stops the pain. Microdiscectomy surgery is the least invasive surgery and is the first choice of most surgeons. Microdiscectomies cost from $2,500 to $5,000.
Liability – Who pays?
If you live in a no-fault insurance state, you must turn to your own insurance company to reimburse you for the costs of your medical treatment, chiropractic care, lost wages, and out-of-pocket expenses related to your treatment. In very limited circumstances and in a limited number of states, you can try to sue the negligent driver for pain and suffering.
If you live in a traditional tort liability state, you’ll turn to the driver’s insurance company to reimburse you for your damages. You must act quickly if another driver caused the accident. If you intend to file a personal injury insurance claim, you need to gather evidence as soon as possible.
Types of Evidence
The police report
The report will contain diagrams of the accident scene, witnesses’ names, tickets issued, officers’ opinions about fault, and more.
Witnesses’ contact information and statements
Witnesses may have evidence of the other driver’s negligence. Maybe they saw the driver make an illegal maneuver or heard him make an admission against his own interest. Statements like, “It was my fault,” or, “I was on my cell phone” are crucial.
Photographs of the accident scene
Photographs don’t lie. The more you have the better. Photos of the point of impact, skid marks, the driver, traffic signals, and more are strong evidence.
Your medical records
Your medical records are crucial. They tie your back injuries directly to the accident. Make sure the attending doctor’s report is clear. If you have a question, ask to see the doctor. If his report (narrative) is vague, ask him to change it so it’s more accurate.
If you had a prior back injury, make sure the doctor explains your injuries from this accident are separate and distinct from any prior injury. If you went to the emergency room, get copies of your admitting chart, the doctors’ charts, test results, and all subsequent notes any hospital employee made.
Do you need an attorney?
It depends. If your injuries were the soft tissue type like ligament, tendon, or muscle sprains or tears, you probably can handle your own insurance claim. On the other hand, if your injuries were the hard injury type like disk herniation, fractured vertebrae, or spinal cord damage, see a lawyer as soon as possible.
Each state has its own laws regarding how long you have to settle your injury insurance claim or file a lawsuit. The law is known as the statute of limitations. Statutory limitation periods range from one to five years so don’t hesitate to act. Check your state’s statutory period as soon as possible. If you have a question, call an attorney. Most don’t charge for an initial office visit.
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