According to the Mayo Clinic, automobile accidents are one of the leading causes of spine injuries and are responsible for more than 40 percent of spinal injuries every year. This is a troubling statistic. While car accidents cannot always be prevented, having the right knowledge about spine injuries can help you to recognize an injury so that you know what to do if you are in a car accident.
Why Are Auto Accidents So Dangerous?
The spine is a complex structure, but it is also delicate. The spine is not built to withstand the impact of a car accident. Unfortunately, neck and back injuries are common during car accidents; the impact strains the ligaments and muscles in the back, and the facet joints bear the brunt of the force. This can result in several injuries, including whiplash, disc herniation, compression fractures, and spondylolisthesis.
It is important to be able to spot the symptoms of these injuries so that if you or someone else is injured, you will know what to do. Some injuries can be made worse if the injured person is moved. Even if it was a low-speed car accident, if you experience back or neck pain afterward, you should seek the help of a medical professional. A muscle strain may heal on its own, but if back or neck pain is caused by a more serious injury, a person may still feel pain months or years later.
How to Spot an Injury
How do you know if neck or back pain is simply a muscle strain, or a more serious injury? You likely won’t know for certain until you are evaluated by a medical professional, but there are some symptoms that may indicate that medical help is needed. Let’s review some of the symptoms of common neck and back injuries caused by car accidents.
Whiplash is more common during rear-end collisions, as the force from impact suddenly pushes your head backward, then forward, much like the motion of cracking a whip. Front-end collisions do not usually result in whiplash, as the headrest often stops the motion of the head and neck. Symptoms of whiplash will appear within 24 hours of the accident, and may include pain and stiffness in the neck, headaches that are often at the base of the skull, dizziness, blurred vision, and fatigue. In some cases, a person with whiplash may also experience difficulty concentrating, memory problems, ringing in the ears, difficulty sleeping, and irritability.
Compression fractures are common in the thoracic and lumbar spine (middle and lower back) during a car accident. During impact, the upper body may be thrown forward while the lower body is held in place by a seatbelt. This can pull the vertebrae apart. In some cases, spinal fractures can result in spinal cord injuries, as the broken vertebrae may move out of place. The main symptom of a spinal fracture is moderate to severe back pain that worsens with movement, but those with spinal cord injuries may also experience tingling, numbness, weakness, or loss of bladder and bowel control. If a spinal fracture is suspected, it is important not to move the injured person; movement could cause further damage. Emergency rescue workers will immobilize the injured person with a neck collar and backboard before transporting him or her to the hospital.
Spondylolisithesis occurs when a vertebra shifts out of place due to a stress fracture in the bone. The displaced bone may press on the nerves or narrow the spinal canal, causing pain, numbness, or weakness in the buttock or leg, and difficulty walking. In extreme cases, it may cause loss of bladder or bowel control. However, some people experience no symptoms at all, or do not experience symptoms until years later.
Since the discs absorb the majority of the impact to the spine, it is possible for a disc to herniate during a car accident. A disc is herniated when its soft center pushes through a small crack in the disc’s exterior, irritating the surrounding nerves. Some people experience no symptoms, but others may experience arm or leg pain, depending on the location of the herniated disc, and may also experience tingling, numbness, or weakness in the affected area.
What to Do if You Have a Spinal Injury
If you experience any back or neck pain at all following a car accident, you should be evaluated by a doctor to rule out any serious injury. However, it is especially important to seek medical attention immediately if you experience tingling, numbness, weakness, or loss of bladder or bowel control. These are indications of a more serious injury that must be addressed immediately.
Now that we have discussed indications of spinal injury following a car accident, as the week continues we will discuss how we treat these injuries. Follow me on Twitter (@GleiberMD) for updates on my latest blog posts.