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Can a Car Accident Cause a Herniated Disc?

Car accidents can lead to a herniated disc, as well as nerve damage. The disc injury and nerve injury can be related, such as when a slipped or herniated disc causes a pinched nerve, nerve impingement, radiculopathy, or chronic pain.

It is not uncommon for people injured in a car accident to suffer from herniated discs, which are spinal injuries that can cause intense pain.

The bones (vertebrae) of the spinal column protect nerves that come from the brain and form the spinal cord. These spinal bones are separated by disks. These disks are little shell-type barrier pillows that contain a liquid substance. They cushion the spinal column and put space between the vertebrae in the spine. The disks allow movement between the vertebrae and help absorb shock as a person moves. Physical trauma can cause the disk to move out of place (herniate) or break open (rupture). When this happens, there may be pressure on the nerves of the spinal cord. This can lead to pain, numbness, or weakness.

Medline Plus, a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health (NIH), lists common symptoms of herniated discs.

  • A slipped disk in the lower back may be accompanied by sharp pain that radiates to one part of the leg, hip, or buttocks, as well as numbness in other parts. A person may also feel pain or numbness on the back of the calf or sole of the foot. The same leg may also feel weak. The sensations may range from a numb feeling to a sharp pain that may shoot all the way down to the feet. It may feel like a tingling sensation or pins and needles.
  • With a slipped disk in the neck, a person may experience pain when moving their neck, deep pain near or over the shoulder blade, or pain that moves to the upper arm, forearm, and fingers. A person can also have numbness along their shoulder, elbow, forearm, and fingers.

A person can actually feel the herniation or rupturing of the disc, in some cases. A typical description is that it felt like something popped or slipped in the back or neck. Pain is usually felt immediately. However, auto accident victims may not feel the full extent of pain immediately after a car accident. The pain often starts slowly and it may worsen.

Emergency room doctors usually do not identify a patient’s herniated disc right after an accident because soft tissues like spinal discs cannot be seen on X-rays. A magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI) or computerized tomography scan (CT) is needed before a doctor can make an accurate diagnosis. Individuals who have been in a car accident and believe they might have a herniated disc, should request an MRI while in the emergency room. Waiting too long can open the door for the insurance company involved to argue that the injury was not caused by the accident.

In some cases, it can take approximately 6 months for those who have suffered a herniated disc to heal on their own. Other people who have a herniated disc may require surgery and physical therapy. Treatment may be expensive and recovery could be long. Some people will never fully recover, even with surgery.

Those who have a herniated or ruptured a disc in a car accident should seek legal representation as soon as possible to ensure that they receive fair compensation from the insurance company and-or the party at fault for the accident.


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