Back injuries can affect your day to day life, both personally and professionally. If left unattended, back injuries can become chronic and result in even more pain. If the negligent or careless conduct of another person has caused your back injury or exacerbated a pre-existing back injury, you may be entitled to recover certain damages.
Back and Spine Injuries
Causes of Back Injuries
Back and spine injuries can occur in numerous different ways. Some frequent scenarios include motor vehicle accidents, boating accidents, or bicycle and pedestrian accidents. Additionally, back injuries frequently occur in the workplace when an employee falls, is required to push or pull items, or lift heavy objects. Slipping and falling, in general, can also cause back injuries. In addition to these examples, back injuries can occur in many other ways.
Anatomy and Overview of Back and Spine Injuries
Not every back injury is the same. The back is comprised of the backbone, spinal cord, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. To fully understand a back injury, a basic understanding of the back’s anatomy is needed.
Back and Spine Components. The back is complex. The back contains muscles which help you move or hold position. Tendons fasten muscle to bone. Ligaments stretch from one bone to another to hold bones together. You can injure these portions of your back but (other than muscle strains) the majority of back injuries deal with the backbone or spine itself.
The backbone itself is not one long bone. Rather, the backbone is comprised of 24 separate bones called vertebrae. These 24 vertebrae are stacked on top of each other to form the entire backbone or spinal column. The spinal column is a strong, yet flexible, structure. The four major components of the spine are comprised of: the vertebrae, joints, disks, and nerves. The vertebrae protect the nerves and spinal cord (which sends electrical signals between the brain and nerves in your legs, arms, back, and other parts of the body). The joints are the spaces between two vertebrae that allow for different degrees of movement. Finally, the disks are “shock absorbers” made of cartilage—a soft elastic material—that act as cushions to prevent the joints from wearing out.
The spine is divided into three primary sections: (1) the cervical spine (or neck) consists of the top seven vertebrae; (2) the thoracic spine is made up of the twelve middle vertebrae; and (3) the lumbar spine (or low back) consists of the five lowest vertebrae.
Common Back Injuries
With the back anatomy information serving as a backdrop, the following are some types of common back injuries:
- Lower back (lumbar) strain and sprain. Lower back muscle strains and sprains are a common back injury. While a lower back strain or sprain may seem like a relatively minor injury, they can cause severe and debilitating pain. If the lower back is strained or sprained, the muscles and tissues swell up causing painful inflammation and sometimes muscle spasms. A strain occurs when the muscle fibers or tendons are abnormally stretched or torn. By contrast, a sprain occurs when ligaments (tissue that holds bones together) are abnormally stretched or torn from their attachments.
- Herniated or bulged disk. Your spinal disks are comprised of a soft, jellylike center encased in a tougher, elastic exterior. A bulging disk usually occurs when the spinal disks moves or slips from its normal position and causes an outward swelling of the elastic exterior. The disk could also “balloon” in between the spaces in the vertebrae. By contrast, a herniated disk occurs when the interior, jellylike center pushes through a tear in the exterior. While a herniated disk is likely more severe than a bulging disk because it protrudes farther, both can cause severe pain from putting pressure on your nerve roots. The herniated or bulging disk can compress the nerve or cause painful inflammation of the nerve root.
- Vertebrae fracture. A vertebrae fracture occurs when a vertebrae in the spine decreases anywhere from 15% to 20% in height due to a fracture. This can occur when enormous force is applied to the back. There are different kinds of vertebrae fractures. For example, a compression fracture occurs when the vertebrae cannot handle sudden force and fractures as a result. A wedge fracture is a form of compression fracture as the front portion of the vertebrae collapses and looks wedge shaped. Another type of vertebrae fracture is a burst fracture. A burst fracture occurs when multiple vertebrae are fractured. Burst fractures are severe because bone fragments can spread out and cause injuries to the spinal cord. No matter the classification of fracture, if the fracture is unstable, it can be difficult for the spine to distribute weight, cause deformity, and progress and cause further damage if untreated.
- Radiculopathy is a general medical term which describes problem when the nerves in the back are negatively affected. This can encompass a pinched nerve or other issues such as spinal stenosis (see below), bone spurs, herniated disks, or other conditions impacting the nerves. Radiculopathy can have different symptoms and names depending on the location in occurs in the spine. For example, lower back (lumbar) radiculopathy is referred to as sciatica because the nerve roots that comprise the sciatic nerve are involved and you may feel shooting pains in your legs. By contrast, cervical (neck) radiculopathy may cause symptoms in your arms and hands due to the location of the compressed nerve.
- Facet joint dysfunction. The joints that connect your vertebrae are referred to as facet joints. Their function is to promote healthy movement (along with the disks) and stability for movement in the back. Each joint has nerve fibers that send pain signals when the joint is irritated or injured. Facet joint dysfunction can occur if a person sustains trauma to the back (for example, whiplash in a motor vehicle accident).
- Spinal Stenosis. Spinal stenosis occurs when the spine narrows. As a result, this causes pressure on the spinal cord and nerves in the squeezed area. Spinal stenosis most typically occurs in the neck (cervical) area or lower back (lumbar).
- Spondylolisthesis occurs when one of the vertebrae slips out of place (either forwards or backwards) and onto the vertebrae below it. This condition can lead to spinal stenosis (see above) or compression of the nerve roots.
Diagnosing Back Injuries
Back and spine injuries do not always surface in the immediate aftermath of a collision or accident. Some people may suffer immediate pain and swelling—other people may not detect any pain for days or weeks after the collision or accident. The circumstances surrounding each back injury are different depending on the collision, accident, and person.
Symptoms. Some signs and symptoms of back pain can include:
- Muscle aches or spasms
- Shooting or stabbing pains
- Loss of altered sensation (ability to feel heat or cold)
- Numbness, tingling, or loss of sensation in hands, fingers, feet, or toes
- Pain that radiates down the leg or buttocks
- Pain when standing, walking, lifting, or moving
- Stiffness or difficulty standing
- Restriction of range of motion
Testing and Imaging. To determine what exact type of back injury you have, you may undergo the following tests so a doctor can diagnose the problem.
- X-ray. An X-ray uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to create images of your bones. These images can show the alignment of the bones in your back but may not reveal damage to your muscles, disks, nerves, or spinal cord.
- MRI. Magnetic resonance imaging shows soft tissues. In addition to bone structure, an MRI can show herniated or bulging disks and problems with tissues, tendons, nerves, ligaments, blood vessels, and muscles. Accordingly, an MRI is most likely better than an X-ray to image soft tissue damage in the back.
- CT Scan. A computer axial tomography scan is often used in conjunction with X-rays to show cartilage and fluid damage when a disk ruptures. CT scan may also shows the extent of a fracture to a particular vertebrae.
- Nerve Study. A nerve study is usually performed with electromyography (EMG). The nerve study stimulates nerves to determine their ability to send a response to your muscles. An EMG can help diagnose issues with the nerve root, such as a herniated disk or spinal stenosis that is compressing nerve roots.
These are the primary tests use to diagnose back injuries, yet not a comprehensive list. The type of test you undergo with depend on your symptoms you are experiencing.
Treatment for Back Injuries
Treatment for back injuries will differ depending on the symptoms and underlying cause. But the following are some common treatment that people undergo for issues with their back or spine:
- Physical therapy. Physical therapy can encompass a number of different treatments. For example, a physical therapist may applying heat and ice to your back. Further, a physical therapist could use ultrasound, electrical stimulation, or flexibility and strength exercises to strengthen the back and abdomen.
- Chiropractic therapy. Chiropractors use spinal manipulation and adjustments to improve the range and quality of motion for your back. Chiropractors will use controlled and sudden force to readjust the bones in your spine and neck.
- Nerve stimulation. Some treatments include transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) which delivers small electric pulses through the body using electrodes placed on the skin. Its purpose is to release endorphins and other substances to stop pain signals in your brain.
- Injections can help alleviate pain. For example, epidural corticosteroid injections are often used to help reduce inflammation and pain in the back. Injections can help alleviate pain while you progress through physical therapy and perform stretching and exercise that you otherwise could not perform.
- Surgery. Sometimes surgery is needed to treat an injured back. One surgery is a spine fusion. A fusion joins two vertebrate together with a bone graft inserted between them. The vertebrae are splinted together with cages, screws, or metal plates. Another type of surgery is the insertion of an artificial disk to replace a damaged one between two vertebrae. Finally, sometimes a diskectomy is needed to remove portions of an irritating disk that compresses a nerve. If surgery is needed at all, and which type, will ultimately depend on the type and severity of the back injury.
Types of Monetary Recovery for Back Injuries
If the negligence or intentional conduct of another person has caused your back injury or exacerbated a pre-existing injury, you may be entitled to certain damages. To determine how much money in damages you are entitled to recover depends on the circumstances surrounding your injury. The type of back injury, the severity of that injury, and allocation of fault all play a factor in determining either an injury settlement or how much a jury could award.
Three primary types of damages exist:
- Economic damages have a direct or tangible cost. For example, economic damages consist of medical bills, lost wages, or—in particularly severe cases—life care services such as custodial care and home or automobile modifications.
- Medical Bills. In a lawsuit for a back injury, medical bills usually are covered dollar for dollar in the amounts that have been paid or incurred for medical providers. Common costs include physical therapy, chiropractic therapy, doctor visits, and medications. For more severe cases, these costs might include injections or surgeries.
- Lost Wages. When a person sustains a back injury, they often must miss time at work due to pain creating an inability to work. Lost wages encompass any lost income that the injured person would have earned had they not sustained the back injury. Often this includes the lost income from time of the injury until the time that the injured person can return to work.
- Life Care Services. In particularly severe cases involving the spinal cord, paralysis may occur. If a person sustains a back injury resulting in paralysis, they may need custodial care. More likely, that person will need to make modifications to their home and vehicle to accommodate the need to use a wheelchair. These modifications to both the home and automobile can include both ramps and lifts.
- Non-economic (or general) damages vary from person to person and include pain and suffering, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment, loss of consortium, and disability.
- Punitive damages punish the defendant for bad behavior. Punitive damages are less common in back injury cases unless the defendant committed an intentional or malicious act that they knew would harm you.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How much is my back injury claim worth?
Answer: It depends on the damages as each case and each injury is different. The extent and severity of the back injury will differ in each case. The treatment methods and options for back injuries may differ as well. Some people may also miss time from work due to a back injury. If you sustained a back injury and believe that someone else is responsible, you should contact the attorneys at Armstrong & Lee to discuss whether you have viable case and how much your back injury claim may potentially be worth.
Q: Who pays for my back injury?
Answer: It depends. In motor vehicle accidents, your automobile insurance may include personal injury protection (PIP) that will cover a set limit of costs, regardless of which driver is at fault. Your medical insurance may cover some of the costs in seeking medical care. If you were injured at work, your employer may subscribe to worker’s compensation or provide its own benefits plan. Depending on the scenario, your employer may pay for some of these costs associated with your back injury. Finally, the at-fault party may be held financially responsible for the costs associated with your back injury. The attorneys at Armstrong & Lee are experienced to help hold any at-fault party financially responsible for your back injury.
Q: Do I still have recourse if I aggravated a pre-existing back injury?
Answer: Yes. The defense, however, will likely try to avoid responsibility for your back injury by blaming your problems on the pre-existing back complaints. The attorneys at Armstrong & Lee are skilled and resourceful in proving responsibility for a back injury in an aggravation case to obtain the proper measure of damages on your case.
Q: Do I need legal help with for my back injury?
Answer: You may ultimately not need legal help. Insurance companies and employers, however, are notorious for employing tactics to prevent you from recovering the compensation you may be entitled to. An experienced personal injury attorney at Armstrong & Lee can help level the playing field to ensure you get the compensation you are entitled to.