Disc Herniation in Motor Vehicle Accidents

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November 27, 2012
Edward Smith

Back injuries are common injuries following a motor vehicle accident. Back injuries can involve injuries to the disk or injuries to bones, nerves, muscles and ligaments. Some back injuries can lead to lifelong paralysis, especially if the spinal cord is damaged.

A herniated disc can happen in a motor vehicle accident, especially if the restraining system was used improperly. The disc part of the spine is the spongy cushion that protects the vertebrae from rubbing up against one another. It has an outer tougher layer and a thin, more fluid layer and when it is ruptured, the thin layer spills out into the spinal space. This can cause swelling or put pressure on the spinal cord. When damaged, the disc can make the back more rigid and less flexible in the area of damage.

A damaged disc can also affect the spinal nerves as they exit the back to various places in the body. This can cause pain, numbness and/or weakness of the body part affected by the damaged nerve. One common disc injury causes damage to the sciatic nerve and you get sciatica, which involves having numbness, pain and tingling in the buttock or leg area. Sciatica is often debilitating and often worsens as time passes.

Spinal cord injuries are perhaps the worst possible injuries one can have to the back. The spinal cord is the main nerve that goes from the brain to all parts of the body except for the face. If there is a blood clot in the spinal cord, compression of the spinal cord or transection of the spinal cord, it can cause permanent paralysis below the level of the injury. Injuries to the cervical spine result in quadriplegia or loss of function of all arms and legs. Injuries to the thoracic spine cause paraplegia or loss of function of the legs. As can be seen, the higher the spinal cord injury, the more of the body can be involved in the injury.

In older adults, car accidents can cause compression fractures of the spine. These are fractures that shorten the donut shaped vertebrae so that they are not the right height. This can cause deformities of the vertebrae and splinters from the fracture can damage the spinal cord. The most common symptom of a compressed vertebra is pain at the site of the injury. There can be breathing problems and alteration in the person’s posture. Unfortunately, up to two thirds of fractures are not discovered and are written off to arthritic changes.

Injuries to the spine can occur at low or high speeds. Even at speeds of less than ten miles per hour, there can be serious spinal injury with limited damage to other body areas. The cervical spine is particularly associated with low speed accidents. In addition, the soft tissues of the spine are particularly vulnerable to low impact injury. Even a ligamentous injury to the lumbar or cervical spine can lead to permanent damage and chronic pain from a low speed impact.