Spinal Cord Injuries That Can Be Caused by a Car Accident

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Key Points:

  • The impacts of a car accident can cause catastrophic, life-changing damage to the spinal cord, which controls a broad range of bodily functions.
  • Spinal cord injury symptoms and treatments can vary depending on the section of spine affected and the extent of the damage.
  • If another person’s negligence caused you to suffer a severe spinal cord injury, you should receive a large payment from the insurance company that covers the full extent of your losses and trauma.
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An illustration of a spinal column with the T6 vertebrae in dark red.

When one automobile collides with another, the sudden impact can exert a tremendous force on the driver’s back and neck. As a result, many people who have been involved in car accidents experience symptoms of a spinal cord injury.

If you have been in a car accident, you should pay close attention to any back or neck discomfort because even minor injuries may worsen and lead to long-term problems. Depending on the severity, a spinal cord injury may be permanently life-changing.

There are different types of spinal cord injuries, and the symptoms and treatments vary based on certain factors, such as where the spine is affected and the extent of the structural damage.

This guide will help you understand these injuries and the costs you may recover if you have suffered damage to your spinal cord.

Understanding What Makes Up Your Spinal Cord

Your spinal cord is a column of nerve tissue that runs from your brain down the center of your back and is covered by three layers of protective membrane. Think of your brain as the command center of your body, and your spinal cord as the messenger, sending signals back and forth through the nervous system.

Surrounding the spinal cord and membrane are interlocking bones, called vertebrae, that form your spinal column. Your vertebrae protect your spinal cord and support your body weight. Vertebrae are connected by facet joints, which are bony knobs that meet between each pair of vertebrae and give your spine flexibility.

The pads between your vertebrae are called intervertebral discs, which provide mobility and function as a shock absorber for your spine. These discs help hold the vertebrae together but often degenerate, or become stiffer, over time.

Your spinal cord is divided into different segments, with a nerve root running through the bony canal and a pair of nerves exiting the spine at each of its levels. If any section of your spinal cord, or its surrounding vertebrae, discs, nerves, ligaments, muscles, or tendons, are injured, you can experience pain that ranges from mild and temporary to debilitating and permanent.

The Four Sections of the Spinal Cord

Your spinal cord has four sections, and each contains a different group of nerves that control your body.

The first region is the cervical, and it has eight nerves that are protected by seven vertebrae, which are abbreviated C1 through C7, starting from the top. The cervical vertebrae protect your brain stem and spinal cord, support your skull, and allow you to move your head.

Below your cervical area is the thoracic section of your spinal cord, which consists of 12 nerves protected by 12 vertebrae known as T1 through T12. The thoracic spine in your back is larger than your cervical spine and attached to your rib cage and ligament systems, giving this section more strength and stability but less range of motion. Your thoracic spine helps keep your body upright.

Beneath your thoracic region are five lumbar nerves protected by five vertebrae, abbreviated L1 through L5. The vertebrae of the lumbar spine allows your lower back to support most of your weight; they are bigger and wider than those in the cervical and thoracic sections.

The sacral section is located at the bottom of your spine and consists of five nerve roots protected by five vertebrae (S1 through S5), which are fused into a triangular shape called the sacrum. Your sacrum fits between your hipbones, connecting your spine to your pelvis and above your tailbone, or coccyx.

Cervical Spinal Injuries Caused by Car Accidents

While a seatbelt restrains your body during a car accident, your head and neck have no real protection; they may jerk back and forth or to the side, which can cause injuries to your cervical spine or the ligaments and muscles that surround it.

You may have a cervical spinal injury if you experience:

  • Neck pain or stiffness
  • Radiating pain
  • Tingling, numbness, or weakness in your shoulders, arms, or hands
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches

The following are the most common cervical injuries caused by car accidents:

Slipped or herniated disc. The impact of a collision may cause an intervertebral disc to slip out of place, or become herniated. A slipped disc can leak material that irritates nerves or press against a nerve in the spinal cord, causing pain, weakness, tingling, or numbness. If left untreated, a slipped disc may lead to permanent nerve damage or bladder-control problems. To treat a slipped disc, you may need medication, physical therapy, or surgery.

Facet joint injury. During a crash, facet joints can become fractured or dislocated, or the cartilage between the joints may become torn or inflamed. Because the facet joints control movement, you may have difficulty turning your head and neck if injured. The symptoms of a facet joint injury are similar to those of a slipped disc, which can make a correct diagnosis tricky. Your doctor may need to examine X-rays, CT scans, MRI scans, or discograms to determine whether you have a facet joint injury or slipped disc. Treatment for a facet joint injury may require medication, injections, physical therapy, or surgery.

Neck fracture. The sudden force of a car accident can cause cervical bones to crack, which may sever or impair the underlying spinal cord and lead to paralysis or even death. If you have a cervical fracture, you will experience significant pain and swelling as well as numbness in your arms and legs. To prevent further injury to your spinal cord, you should not move without medical help and should be rushed to a hospital immediately. Treatment depends on the severity of the injury; minor fractures may only require a neck brace, unstable fractures may require traction, and severe fractures with damage to your spinal cord and vertebrae may require surgery. Certain cervical fractures can cause permanent damage to the spinal cord, resulting in partial or total quadriplegia (i.e., paralysis of your arms and legs).

Whiplash. Whiplash is a common injury that can occur when the head jerks back and forth during a rear-end collision. This sudden movement can cause straining or tearing of the muscles, ligaments, nerves, and other tissue in your neck. With a whiplash injury, you may not notice pain or stiffness until hours afterward. Symptoms of whiplash may only last days or weeks; however, more severe cases can cause long-term pain, headaches, or memory problems. Treatment for whiplash depends on the extent of your injury and can include medication, specialized pain management, or physical therapy.

Thoracic Spinal Injuries Caused by Car Accidents

The impact of a car accident may cause spinal injuries in your upper and middle back. Symptoms and treatments for these injuries will depend on the type of damage.

The most common reason for pain in the thoracic region of your spine is muscle or soft-tissue inflammation caused by strain from a sudden collision. However, your doctor may be concerned by certain “red flag” symptoms and order diagnostic tests (e.g., an X-ray and MRI) because pain in the thoracic section can mean more serious problems.

If you have a thoracic spinal cord injury or nerve damage, you may experience fever, difficulty breathing, and persistent pain and stiffness. Other symptoms include:

  • Pain that radiates from your back into your arms, legs, rib cage, or chest
  • Weakness, tingling, or numbness in your legs, genitals, and rectal area
  • Inability to control your urine or stool

Symptoms may appear immediately after a crash but could also occur gradually, becoming more noticeable with time.

While some signs may indicate a slipped disc or facet joint injury, more serious problems may signal a thoracic spine fracture. As with cervical fractures, some thoracic fractures may only need bracing, yet others require traction or surgery.

If the spinal cord nerves are seriously damaged in the T1–T5 section, it can cause paraplegia, which affects the legs, abdominal, and lower muscles and the lungs and diaphragm. If the injury occurs in section T6–T12, it can result in paraplegia and the loss of abdominal, bladder, and bowel control.

The prognosis for thoracic spinal cord injuries varies from person to person, and the recovery depends on factors such as injury type, severity, and your overall health.

Lumbar Spinal Injuries Caused by Car Accidents

If you are injured in a car accident, you may have damage in your lower back, known as the lumbar spine. Injuries to this section, which supports most of your weight, are common and typically only affect your lower body.

As with the other spinal regions, the specific level of injury usually determines the symptoms. If you have spinal cord or nerve damage at L1 or L2, you may have trouble moving your hips, lose sensation in your legs, or have problems controlling your bladder and bowels. L2 is where your spinal cord ends.

If the damage occurs at the L3 vertebrae, you may have muscle weakness, loss of sensation in your legs or hips, and reduced range of motion. Because the spinal cord does not reach the L3 level, any symptoms you have from injuries at this point or below will likely be less severe.

Damage at the L4 level may include numbness, weakness, or difficulty bending your toes. Injuries at L5 are similar, with weakness or loss of sensation in the legs.

Sometimes car accidents can cause existing spinal stenosis, which is a deterioration that happens naturally over time, to become symptomatic. Though spinal stenosis can affect any area of your spine, pain in the lumbar region is most common. Other spinal stenosis signs include leg or arm weakness, numbness in legs or buttocks, and balance issues.

Your doctor may order X-rays, an MRI, a CT scan, or a bone scan to check for spinal stenosis, and treatment can include medication, injections, physical therapy, or surgery.

Care for other lumbar spinal injuries depends on the location and extent of damage and can also include medication, physical therapy, and surgery.

Sacral Spinal Injuries Caused by Car Accidents

Injuries to the sacral spine are rare, but a high-speed car collision can cause serious damage to this section and the nearby pelvic organs.

Because the spinal cord does not extend past the lumbar section, nerve roots originating in the lumbar exit each of the sacral vertebrae levels. Thus, damage to the nerve roots of the sacrum may produce symptoms similar to spinal cord injuries.

The five fused bones (and corresponding nerve roots) that form the triangle-shaped sacrum are numbered S1 to S5. S1 affects the hips and groin, S2 impacts the back of the thighs, S3 helps control the buttock area, and S4 and S5 affect the perineal region.

If you have damage to your sacral spine, you may have symptoms on one or both sides of your body. Though you will likely still be able to walk and drive a car, you may lose some function in your hips or legs. In addition, your bladder or bowel control may be affected, or you may experience sexual dysfunction. Male fertility could also be impacted.

As with other spinal sections, sacral injuries are usually detected with X-rays, MRIs, or CT scans and may be treated with medication, physical therapy, or surgery, depending on the type of damage.

Spinal Cord Injuries Can Result in a Large Car Accident Settlement

Because the spinal cord controls such a broad range of bodily functions, damage sustained to it in a car accident can drastically change your life.

Your injuries may only cause temporary pain and symptoms that are resolved with minor medical care. However, you may have a serious injury that results in long-term pain and mobility issues, requiring extensive medical treatment and extended time off work.

In extreme cases, you may suffer permanent paralysis and lifelong health problems that require ongoing medical care, rehabilitation, assistive devices (e.g., a wheelchair), and home modifications (e.g., access ramps and stairlifts). You may also be unable to work or support your family. Depending on the severity of your injuries, your losses – both economic and noneconomic – may be astronomical.

If you were injured in a car accident caused by another person’s negligence, the compensation you receive from an insurance company should cover the full extent of your trauma, including lost wages and earning capacity, medical bills, physical therapy, and any necessary equipment. Mental anguish, physical pain and suffering, lifestyle changes, loss of consortium, and other losses related to your quality of life should also be considered and incorporated into your compensation package. 

Because insurance carriers know spinal cord injury cases that go to trial often result in massive punitive damage awards, they may offer significant compensation to the victim to settle. However, insurance companies always try to pay as little as possible, so you may be entitled to much more.

Making sure the payment covers all your losses is crucial if you have a catastrophic injury because agreeing to a settlement waives your right to future compensation.

The Millar Law Firm Can Help With Your Spinal Injury Case

An attorney with experience handling spinal cord injury cases can help you gather all the information necessary to determine your total losses and negotiate with the insurance carrier, so you receive the compensation you deserve.

Call The Millar Law Firm today at (770) 400-0000 or contact us online to set up a free consultation with one of our attorneys. 

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