Explore symptoms and treatment options for common types of car accident back injuries. Learn about pitfalls that can undermine an injury claim.
More than 4.5 million people are hurt each year in auto accidents, with many of them suffering back injuries.¹
The severity of back injuries from a car crash can range from mild strains to permanent disability. Here we explore symptoms and treatment options for six of the most common types of back injuries caused by motor vehicle accidents.
Whether your injury is a temporary inconvenience or a life-altering catastrophe, you deserve fair compensation for your back injury.
6 Common Car Accident Back Injuries
Modern cars come equipped with seatbelts and airbags, yet injuries still occur. The most commonly reported car accident injuries are to the back and neck.
1. Herniated Discs
Discs are the cushions between the vertebrae. Trauma from a car crash can rupture a disc or cause it to “slip.” Disc herniation occurs when the disc ruptures, causing part of the inner cartilage to protrude. A slipped disc is when the damage pushes or squeezes a disc out of its natural position between the vertebrae.
The herniated or slipped disc then puts pressure on the spinal cord or its surrounding nerves.
Symptoms of herniated or slipped discs include:
- Pain in the back, arm, or leg
2. Spinal Vertebrae Fractures
Abrupt force to the backbone in a car accident causes compression and damage to the bones. Common types of vertebrae fractures are compression fractures, flexion distraction fractures, transverse process fractures, and dislocation fractures.
Symptoms in the area of the break include:
Burst fractures are from severe compression causing the vertebrae to splinter, sending bone shards into surrounding tissue and sometimes the spinal canal.
3. Spinal Cord Injuries
Damage at any level of the spinal cord can result in severe, sometimes fatal injuries. The scope of paralysis corresponds to the injury location along the spinal cord. For example, cervical spinal cord injuries may leave the victim paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe without mechanical support.
4. Facet Joint Injuries
Facet joints help support your body’s weight and work with discs to control movement. Facet joints have a large concentration of nerves that can be excruciatingly painful when injured. The most frequent symptoms are muscle spasms in the area of injury.
5. Neck and Upper Back Whiplash
The result of the human body being violently jerked forward or backward, whiplash neck injury is the most commonly reported car accident injury. Whiplash is a common injury arising from rear-end collisions, although whiplash injuries can occur in any kind of motor vehicle accident.
Whiplash symptoms may include:
- Pain in the cervical spine and back
- Stiffness in the neck and back
- Blurred vision
6. Soft Tissue Injuries
During a collision, any number of ligaments, tendons, and muscles surrounding the vertebrae can violently stretch or tear.
Symptoms of soft tissue injuries include:
- Pain, mild to excruciating
Basic Anatomy of the Back and Spine
The human back is made up of a complex network of tendons, muscles, and ligaments intertwined around the vertebrae, the disks, and the spinal cord.
Vertebrae are the bones in the back. They have an opening for the spinal cord to pass through. Above and below each vertebra are facet joints. Discs are cushions positioned between vertebrae that act as shock absorbers.
The spinal cord is a long bundle of nerve fibers that connects nearly all parts of the body to the brain.
The spine can be pictured as divided into sections:
- Cervical vertebrae are in the neck area (C1-C7)
- Thoracic vertebrae are in the upper back (T1-T12)
- Lumbar vertebrae are in the lower back (L1-L5)
- Sacrum vertebrae are below the lumbar and naturally fused (S1-S5)
- Coccyx vertebrae are also fused, commonly called the tailbone
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 can be painful and debilitating.
Back Injury Diagnosis and Treatments
Your doctor will examine your back and evaluate your ability to sit, stand, bend, walk, and lift your legs. Be sure to tell the doctor you were in a car accident. Depending on the initial exam, your doctor may send you home to rest a few days or may order more tests.
Common Tests for Back Injuries
- X-rays: A basic diagnostic tool used to identify bone fractures and spine misalignment in back injuries.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): An MRI is used to assess misalignment and damage to the spine, herniated discs, and nerve damage.
- Computer Axial Tomography (CT Scan): A CT scan often identifies damage to the discs and spinal cord. It’s an excellent tool for assessing cartilage and fluid damage when discs rupture. It also accurately measures the density and degree of fracture to vertebrae.
- Electromyography (EMG): This nerve study test can confirm nerve compression caused by herniated discs or narrowing of your spinal canal.
Medical and Surgical Back Treatments
Car accident victims with a back or spine injury are usually treated first with “conservative” or non-invasive methods to reduce pain and help restore normal movement. Most doctors start with medications to control back pain, swelling, and muscle spasms.
Commonly Prescribed Back Pain Medications
- Pain Relievers: Over-the-counter (OTC) non-steroid anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen (Motrin) and naproxen sodium (Aleve) reduce pain and swelling. Your doctor may order prescription strength preparations of these meds.
- Muscle Relaxers: Your doctor may order prescription muscle relaxers if OTC meds alone aren’t enough. Muscle relaxers may cause drowsiness.
- Narcotics: Opioid medications may only be used for a short time, under close supervision. Narcotics don’t work well for lingering, chronic pain.
- Topical: Pain relieving creams, lotions, and ointments can be rubbed on the skin where it hurts. Topical pain relievers are also available in large “patches” to cover wide areas of the back.
- Injections: If medications aren’t helping, back pain that radiates down the leg may be treated with cortisone injections into the space around the spinal cord. The cortisone decreases inflammation around the nerves.
Physical Therapy and Exercise
For mild, soft tissue injuries like strains, sprains, and slight tearing of ligaments, tendons, and muscles, doctors recommend a combination of rest, physical therapy, and gentle exercise to restore your range of motion. Most people recover from soft tissue back injuries within a month or so.
Alternate treatments like chiropractic care, massage, and acupuncture are often challenged by insurance companies. Be aware that the adjuster may not be willing to pay for some alternate treatments, even if you say they help you feel better.
Surgical Options for Back Injuries
- Laminectomy: During laminectomy surgery, the surgeon removes a small part of the damaged vertebrae called the lamina. The surgeon also removes damaged disc material, like fluids and exposed cartilage, from the affected nerve area to relieve pain and discomfort.
- 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 that the surgeon can inject a stabilizing agent into the damaged area. The procedure strengthens the vertebrae, making it more durable.
- Endoscopy: Spinal endoscopy is a minimally invasive surgery. The surgeon inserts a small tube with a tiny camera into the vertebra through a small incision. The camera helps the surgeon to see and treat pinched or compressed nerves and identify vertebrae that may need fusing.
- Spinal Fusion: Spinal fusion surgery joins two or more vertebrae together. The surgeon grafts bone tissue (from the patient or a matching donor) to the damaged vertebrae. Because the tissue is natural to the body, it becomes part of the existing tissue, strengthening it.
- Artificial Disc Replacement (ADR): During ADR surgery, the surgeon substitutes the severely damaged disc with an artificial prosthetic disk.
- Microdiscectomy: During microdiscectomy surgery, the surgeon removes damaged disc material pressing up against the nerve endings. The procedure often stops the pain immediately.
Back Injury Car Accident Compensation
Catastrophic spinal cord injuries are high-dollar claims that come with clear medical evidence. The at-fault driver’s insurance company can’t easily dispute the scope and severity of fractures and cord damage that show up on CT scans and MRIs.
Victims of less severe back injuries have to fight harder for fair compensation. When your lower back hurts after a car accident, for example, the pain and stiffness affect every area of your life. But without an X-ray or scan showing visible proof of a lumbar spine injury, the adjuster will be skeptical of your lower back pain.
How to protect your right to full compensation from the start:
- Never refuse medical attention at the scene of the crash, or delay medical treatment until days later. The adjuster will argue that your injuries weren’t caused by the accident and deny your claim.
- Get standard medical care. Adjusters tend to challenge diagnosis and treatment of lower back pain and other soft-tissue back injuries, especially when the care provider is a chiropractor or other alternative treatment provider.
- Avoid “car accident doctors” who order repeated tests and prolonged therapies for soft-tissue injuries. The insurance company only has to pay for reasonable and medically necessary treatment.
- Get a note from your doctor for days off work, even if your employer doesn’t require it. Adjusters won’t authorize payment for lost wages if they think you were goofing off.
Handling Your Own Claim
When you’ve fully recovered from relatively mild back injuries, you might decide to handle your own insurance claim.
Calculate the settlement value of your claim by adding up medical bills and receipts for all your medical expenses and lost wages. Add one or two times that amount to account for your non-economic damages, better known as pain and suffering.
Let’s say your medical costs and lost wages total $500. Add $1,000 ($500 x 2) for your pain and suffering. Your total demand for injury compensation would be $500 + $1,000 = $1,500.
After a few rounds of negotiations with the adjuster, you might reach a compromised settlement amount somewhere between $900 and $1,200.
Serious or complicated back injury cases should be handled by an experienced personal injury attorney. Most accident attorneys offer a free consultation to victims with no obligation. Get the legal help you need to maximize compensation for you or your family member.
How Much is Your Injury Claim Worth?
Find out now with a FREE case review from an attorney…
Car Accident Back Injury Questions
I was involved in a car accident 6 weeks after I had lower back surgery. I went to the ER the next day, after my…
We were in our car waiting for a car to turn in front of us, and we were completely stopped. I was a passenger in…
I was rear ended by a rental car with a $1 million dollar policy limit. The collision aggravated my L5-S1 vertebra. I had lumbar spinal…
I sustained a herniated disc and bulging disc from a motor vehicle accident. We were hit from behind at 45-50 mph by an elderly man…