Written By: Dr. Kaliq Chang
The chances of sustaining a spinal injury or an injury associated to the spine are high and depending on the severity of the accident, and how you were jostled in the car can determine the severity of your injuries. Both drivers and passengers are susceptible to injury following a car accident. If you were in a car accident, you should seek immediate medical attention from a physician, chiropractor, physical therapist, or other healthcare provider. Often times people who walk away from a car accident don’t immediately seek medical attention. The most common reasons people refuse immediate medical attention are because some injuries do not show any immediate pain, people have other obligations, they’re running on adrenaline, they just want to go home, or they think the pain is manageable on their own.
Herniated Disc Caused By a Car Accident
A very common injury following a car accident is a herniated disc. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, a herniated disc if pressing on a nerve may cause pain, numbness or weakness in the back or part of the body where the nerve travels. The two most common areas for a herniated disc are the lumbar spine (lower back) and the cervical spine (neck). A herniated disc to the lumbar spine may cause pressure to the sciatic nerve. This may cause sharp radiating pain from the buttock to either leg and foot. A herniated disc to the cervical spine can cause radiating pain starting from the neck or shoulder blades to the arm and hand. Another minor spinal injury is a lumbar sprain. A lumbar sprain, like a herniated disc can cause radiating pain in the lower back, however, it stops at the buttocks and does not affect the legs. Other symptoms of a lumbar sprain include stiffness in the lower back and muscle spasms.
Severe Spinal Injury From an Auto Accident
More serious injuries can include spondylolisthesis (out of place vertebrae), spinal fracture, spinal cord damage and spinal stenosis. Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of spaces in your spine usually in the lower back or neck which can be caused by a herniated disc, or can come independently during a car accident. Common symptoms include pain, tingling, numbness and muscle weakness in the foot or leg; however, some people do not present any symptoms. If you have spinal stenosis in the neck, muscle weakness can extend into the hands and arms. If you have spinal stenosis in the lower back, you could experience pain or cramping in the legs when standing or walking. Spondylolisthesis on the other hand, is an out of place vertebrae that shows similar symptoms to spinal stenosis. It may feel similar to a muscle strain, or cause radiating pain to the back of the thighs and buttocks that starts at the center of the lower back. This can worsen with activity and improve with rest, so you should seek immediate medical attention when you experience any symptoms. Doctors categorize Spondylolisthesis under either low grade or high grade depending on how out of place the vertebrae is. Spondylolisthesis has both nonsurgical treatment such as physical therapy and bracing and surgical treatment when high grade.
Finally, if you are experiencing bowel or bladder dysfunction, numbness, tingling, or weakness in your limbs, it could be symptoms of a spinal fracture. A Flexion/distraction (chance) fracture can commonly occur in head on car collisions. This is when the vertebra is pulled apart when the pelvis is strapped into the seatbelt, while the upper body is thrown forward. This type of fracture can also be treated surgically and non-surgically depending on the severity.
If you feel any pain or abnormal sensations following a car accident, immediate medical attention is recommended to rule out any life-threatening conditions, head and bodily trauma, heart conditions or fractures. Since the spine is a delicate area of the body, it’s also important to rule out any spinal injuries that can have long lasting effects. Fractures are easily ruled out through an X-ray. For any muscle and neck strains, stiffness or spasms, usually located on either side of the neck or lower back, you should seek immediate treatment with conservative care including, but are not limited to, chiropractic care or physical therapy.
What to Do if Your Spine was Injured by a Car Accident
If pain persists despite conservative care, or if pain starts radiating into your arms or legs, it could be a sign that you have a spinal injury, such as a spinal disc injury. Any spinal injuries should be evaluated by an appropriate physician such as a pain management or orthopedic specialist as soon as possible. These specialists can determine the best diagnostic study and recommend the best course of treatment for your injuries. An MRI is the best way to evaluate the spine for potential injuries to the discs, nerves, or the spinal cord because those elements do not appear on an X-ray. In addition to an MRI, a nerve conduction study may also be helpful to diagnose nerve injuries arising from the spine.
Subsequent treatments include, but are not limited to, anti-inflammatory injections, nerve ablations, and if necessary, surgery any of which can be discussed with a medical professional.
Meet the Author Dr. Kaliq Chang
Dr. Kaliq Chang is an interventional pain management specialist who is board-certified in anesthesiology. Dr. Chang is in practice at Atlantic Spine Center. Learn More About the Author. Visit the Atlantic Spine Center website by clicking here.