Herniated discs — also known as ruptured or slipped discs — are one of the most common back injuries that usually affect the lower spine. A herniated disc can be fairly minor or extremely painful and debilitating. While many herniated discs are the result of daily wear and tear over time, many are caused by injury. Car accidents are one of the most common causes of disc herniation as the sudden jerking movement of a collision can put too much pressure on the disc.
If you have suffered a herniated disc after a car accident, it’s important to understand how your injury can affect your claim. Your claim can be affected by many factors, including the severity of your pain, your medical expenses, whether you need to take time off work to recover, and whether the herniated disc results in disability.
If you or a loved one has suffered an injury due to the negligence of another, please call our car accident attorneys at 800-753-5203 for a free case evaluation, with no obligation.
What Is a Herniated Disc?
A herniated disc is a problem with the rubbery discs or cushions between the 33 vertebrae that make up the spinal column. Spinal discs resemble a soft donut with a soft center protected by a harder exterior. Each disc in the spine allows slight movement of the vertebrae bones while working as a ligament to hold the spine together.
The center of the spinal column has an open spinal canal through which the spinal cord and nerves run. The nerves and spinal cord are surrounded by fluid and receive protection from the spinal column. Each side of the spine also has tiny openings between the vertebrae that allow nerves to enter and exit this spinal canal.
A herniated disc happens when the harder outer part of the disc tears or ruptures, allowing the soft core to squeeze out. In many cases, this herniated disc then compresses a nerve running nearby. The pinched nerve can cause side effects like numbness, sharp or radiating pain, and weakness in the legs or arms. The substance in the disc can even irritate the nerve itself and cause more pain, according to The Columbia University Spine Hospital.
The pain and numbness aren’t the only side effects of a herniated disc. When a disc loses its flexibility and strength, it can no longer absorb shock or offer movement of the spine. This can be debilitating and may lead to permanent disability and loss of function.
Herniated Discs and Car Accidents
There are three ways in which a disc can herniate: through daily wear and tear or degenerative disease, injury, or a combination of the two. When it comes to disc injuries, they usually come in two forms: heavy lifting and car accidents.
A car accident can lead to a ruptured disc through the sudden and jerky movement of a crash that stresses the spinal column and causes the disc or vertebrae to come out of place. It’s possible for a single car accident to cause disc damage to an otherwise healthy person who has never had back problems.
A crash can also worsen disc damage that already exists, either through a pre-existing condition like degenerative disc disease or a previous injury. Many adults over the age of 40 already have a bulging or herniated disc that may have no symptoms at all. After an accident, the damage can become worse and symptoms can develop for the first time. In these cases, the accident did not cause the herniated disc, but it did cause a significant and/or permanent aggravation of the pre-existing condition.
Diagnostics for a Ruptured Disc
When a herniated disc or other physiological problem is believed to be the cause of your back or neck pain, your doctor may be able to make a diagnosis based on your medical history and a physical exam. Still, imaging tests are usually ordered, especially after an auto accident.
Regular x-rays cannot be used to diagnose a herniated disc, but they can rule out other common problems after a car accident like a fracture. MRIs are most commonly used to confirm the location of a ruptured disc and see which nerves have been affected.
How Herniated Discs Are Treated
A ruptured disc is always treated with the most conservative approach possible to relieve pain and improve mobility. Sometimes over-the-counter pain medication is enough, but serious herniation may need to be treated with prescription narcotics for a short period of time. Some anticonvulsants originally used to control seizures can also help to reduce the radiating nerve pain you experience. If you experience muscle spasms, your physician may prescribe muscle relaxers. Cortisone injections may also be used with an injection directly into the affected area around the nerves.
While medication can help many people feel better within weeks, sometimes this is not enough. A traumatic car accident that causes a slipped disc or worsens an existing spinal problem may require physical therapy or even surgery. Surgery is usually reserved for serious cases that don’t respond to conservative treatments within 6 weeks, especially when someone experiences numbness, difficulty walking or standing, or loss of bladder control.
When surgery is advised, a surgeon may only need to remove the protruding section of the spinal disc. In rare cases, an entire disc must be removed and the vertebrae must be fused together for stability.
Herniated Discs Can Cause Disability
For many people, a ruptured disc causes short-term discomfort or pain. Others experience pain that is chronic and lifelong, but not necessarily debilitating. While not everyone experiences a disabling disc problem, it can happen. A herniated disc, especially one aggravated by a car accident, can cause severe pain and limit your ability to perform daily activities or work. In severe cases, ruptured discs can even lead to loss of reflexes, numbness, and muscle weakness.