Despite neck and back injuries being some of the most common injuries that people in car accidents sustain, many people actually know very little about what a disc herniation is, or why it is so common in car accidents. Understanding how these injuries happen and what they are can help put you at ease if you have been a victim of these injuries in a car accident.
The Anatomy of the Discs in the Spine
To understand what a disc injury or disc herniation is, it helps to understand the anatomy of the spine. Running up and down the spine are large bones, or vertebrae. The vertebrae are clearly visible, and any picture that you have ever seen of the spinal column shows these vertebrae prominently.
However, many pictures of the spinal column do not show what is between these vertebrae. Between them are gelatinous discs that cushion the vertebrae, protecting them from rubbing against each other. This is why we are able to bend backward and forward with relatively little pain. Without the vertebrae, the bone-on-bone grinding would cause pain and immobility.
These discs have a soft inner core. When the spine twists in ways that it is not supposed to twist, or when the back suffers a sudden and acute impact in an accident, these discs can rupture, spilling out their soft insides.
When the insides rupture, they can cause a protrusion. Sometimes the soft interior of the disc only juts out from the harder outside just a little bit. This is a herniation, but a relatively minor one. The disc may not protrude enough to bother any of the structures that surround it.
However, in other cases, the inside of a disc has been ruptured so violently that it spills out of the surrounding disc entirely. Because the discs are so close to the spine, a herniation may cause the disc to protrude into the spinal cord, pushing on and irritating nerves in the spinal column.
Symptoms of Disc Herniations
Some people can feel that they have sustained some kind of disc injury right after a car accident, but for others, symptoms may not appear for a few days. Remember that in the emergency room, most X-rays will not show a herniated disc, because X-rays show only bone.
Often, a herniated disc can only be diagnosed by your private physician, who can take MRIs or other scans that can visualize the health of the disc.
Regardless of whether your pain is immediate, or comes on slowly, there are a few tell-tale symptoms of a herniated disc. Symptoms can include:
- Tingling or numbness on the arms, legs, feet, and hands – when the disc has ruptured, it pushes on and affects nerves that run to the extremities, causing pain or numbness (sometimes people experience a “tingling” sensation).
- Shooting pain into the extremities – Depending on whether the herniated disc is higher in the neck (the cervical spine) or lower (the lumbar spine), many people will experience pain in the shoulders, arms, legs, buttocks, or thighs. The pain may also be intermittent, such as only when you get in certain positions, or only when you cough or sneeze.
- Weak Muscles – People who have sustained a disc herniation may experience weakness that causes difficulty walking, or manipulating items.
- Lack of bladder/bowel control – In more serious cases, nerves that go to the bladder and bowel may be pressured by the herniated disc, resulting in loss of control.
Doctors will often treat herniated discs conservatively to see if the pain can be limited or lessened through therapy. If a patient is still experiencing pain, surgery for a herniated disc may have to be considered.
In the lumbar spine, there are different surgical options for serious herniations. A common option is a discectomy, or removal of the disc and then a fusion of the vertebrae. In very limited cases, doctors may be able to implant an artificial disc to replace the herniated disc. In the cervical spine, the disc may also be removed, and a spinal plate may be implanted to provide stability.
Whiplash and Herniations
Follow-up treatment with a physician after an accident is vital in Ontario and Pickering, because Ontario’s minor injury guidelines classify a strained or sprained neck or back (sometimes called “whiplash”) as a minor injury. Whiplash is considered to be an injury that a victim can completely heal from (although that is not always true, that is how Ontario law sees it).
The symptoms of whiplash can often be similar (though often less severe) than with a disc herniation. Sometimes, an emergency room may even misdiagnose a herniation as a whiplash. Insurance companies and people who are sued for causing accidents, often try to argue that a victim has only sustained a whiplash, denying that the victim’s injury rises to the level of a disc herniation.
Treating with a doctor is also important because doctors can usually tell if a disc has been herniated for a long time (such as with a slowed decay of discs that happens as a result of aging, or an injury that happened a long time ago) or if a herniation just recently occurred because of your car accident. Insurance companies and Defendants in court will usually argue that your herniation existed long before the accident (pre-existed the accident), and thus, the accident did not actually cause the herniation.
Minor vs. Major Injuries
Getting the scans, diagnostic tests and therapy that your doctor orders can be the difference between accessing Ontario’s much higher insurance limits, which can provide generous benefits to help you with medical expenses, attendant care, further support for extended income replacement benefits or being limited to a much smaller amount of benefits.
Treatment can also help you demonstrate that you have sustained an injury that is serious enough to allow you to file a lawsuit against a driver who caused your car accident. Often, you are not able to file a lawsuit for a very small, minor injury that causes no impairment or one that is not permanent. However, medical documentation can show that your injury is in fact much more serious than a basic whiplash injury. Often, whiplash injuries develop into chronic pain which affects your ability to work or to perform your activities of daily living.
Our Pickering personal injury lawyers may be able to help you recover insurance benefits and often recover damages from an insurance company or a negligent driver who caused an accident. Call us today to discuss your injuries and your accident.