Back Injuries After a Car Accident: Causes, Types, & Treatments

Car accidents can injure the soft tissue, bones, and discs in the back. These back injuries might heal in a few weeks or persist for the rest of your life.

Back injuries might even lead to other injuries. Back injuries disrupt your balance and strength. They can also damage your spinal cord as vertebrae or discs slip out of place.

Here is a guide to the kinds of back injuries that can happen after car accidents.

How Car Accidents Cause Back Injuries

Car accidents put a lot of stress on your body. The impact on your body could cause your back to bend or twist beyond its normal range. Your body could also hit the seat, door, dashboard, or airbag, causing further stress on your back.

During a car accident, your spine will tend to hyperextend during impact. Your back muscles will cause your spine to snap back after impact. This hyperextension and contraction can damage the structures in your back.

Types of Back Injuries

Doctors usually categorize back injuries by the tissue that was injured. 

Some typical back injuries include:

Back Strains and Sprains

Your back contains muscles that help you stand, lift, twist, and bend. These muscles connect to your hips, vertebrae, shoulder blades, and ribs through tendons. The bones of your back connect through ligaments. These ligaments hold your vertebrae, ribs, and shoulder blades in place.

A sprain happens when the ligaments connecting your bones stretch or tear. Ligament damage can cause pain, inflammation, and structural instability. When they happen in your back, you might experience pain every time you walk, bend, or twist. You might also feel weakness when you try to lift objects.

A strain happens when the tendons and muscles stretch or tear. A strain causes many of the same symptoms as a sprain. 

One difference between a sprain and a strain is that sprains often involve bruising near the location of a sprain and the bones connected by the sprained ligament might feel unstable and loose. By contrast, strains might cause muscle spasms and muscle weakness, rather than joint instability.

Fractured Vertebra

Your spine includes vertebrae that are separated by discs. The vertebrae include two wing-shaped processes connected by pedicles to a cylindrical body. The spinal canal sits between the processes and the body.

Tendons attach back muscles to the processes. During a car accident, particularly a rear-end collision or a head-on collision, the tendons can pull on the processes so hard that they fracture. 

When a process fractures, the back muscles and tendons cannot keep the vertebra in position. The vertebrae may slip out of place and press on the spinal cord.

The body can also fracture. These fractures can reduce the stability and height of the vertebra and compress the spinal cord.

Fractures of the body or pedicle can also release bone fragments into the spinal canal. These bone fragments can sever or compress the nerves of the spinal cord.

Compressed Disc

Discs cushion the vertebrae and give the back its flexibility. They include a fibrous outer layer covering a gel-like interior.

Hyperextension and compression of the back in a car accident can crush discs. The force can cause the fibrous outer layer to collapse, leading to a bulging disc. The force can even cause the gel-like interior to squeeze through the outer layer, leading to a herniated disc.

Either kind of disc injury can lead to:

  • Back pain
  • Loss of stability
  • Loss of strength

A bulging or herniated disc can also compress the nerves of the spinal cord.

Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord injuries represent some of the most severe back injuries caused by car accidents. A severed spinal cord causes death or paralysis. 

A compressed spinal cord can lead to:

  • Pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Muscle spasms
  • Loss of coordination
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control

As mentioned previously, bulging and herniated discs, dislocated vertebrae, and bone fragments from a fracture can sever or compress the spinal cord.

Treatment for Back Injuries

Treatment for back injuries depends on the type and severity of the back injury.

Back Strains and Sprains

Doctors usually avoid surgery to repair strains and sprains. Instead, they usually prescribe anti-inflammatory medication, rest, and ice. This often means that your doctor will restrict you from working for at least a few days after a back strain or sprain.

Doctors will also prescribe physical therapy. Therapy can strengthen the other muscles in your body to support the injured tissue.

Fractured Vertebra

For most vertebral fractures, doctors will immobilize the back with a brace and prescribe a few weeks of rest to give the vertebra time to mend. If the fracture created bone fragments, doctors might inject bone cement into the vertebra to prevent the fragments from entering the spinal canal.

In severe cases, doctors can remove a crushed vertebra and fuse the spine. This will help stabilize your back, but you will lose flexibility and could experience back pain for the rest of your life.

Disc Injuries

Doctors cannot repair damaged discs. In many cases, they will prescribe physical therapy to strengthen your back. They can also prescribe treatment with cortisone or other anti-inflammatory drugs.

In severe cases, a doctor can operate on a disc to remove part or all of the disc and fuse your spine. This can relieve pressure on your spinal cord. Disc removal and spinal fusion can also lead to a loss of flexibility and strength in your back.

Spinal Cord Injuries

Your body does not repair severed nerves and doctors have no treatments to reconnect a severed spinal cord. Accident victims with a severed spinal cord will have some paralysis for the rest of their lives.

If the spinal cord is merely compressed, doctors can relieve some or all of the pressure through physical therapy, medication, and surgery. In many cases, these repairs only provide temporary relief or come with a loss of strength and flexibility in your back.

Compensation for Back Injuries

Because many back injuries require rest and long-term treatment, you could recover substantial compensation for them. The costs of medical treatment, surgery, medication, and therapy add up quickly. And during the time your doctor prescribes rest, you may lose income.

Equally importantly, the long-term effects of back injuries can cause substantial physical pain and mental suffering. You can receive compensation for these losses through non-economic damages in a personal injury case.