Your back has many structures that can get injured in an accident. Muscles, tendons, ligaments, vertebrae, and intervertebral discs cooperate to support your weight and provide the strength and flexibility you need to bend, lift, and move.
When trauma damages a disc, you can suffer back instability, loss of strength, and severe pain. Worse yet, the stress on the undamaged discs can also cause them to degenerate.
In this guide, we’ll talk about the common causes and effects of herniated discs and the compensation you can seek for them after an accident.
Table of Contents
How Do Herniated Discs Happen?
Your spine consists of 24 bones known as vertebrae. The vertebrae include a cylindrical body and wing-shaped processes. The spinal cord runs through the spinal canal that is enclosed between the body and processes.
Discs sit between adjacent vertebrae. The discs provide separation between the vertebrae so they do not grind against each other. They also absorb shocks to your back as you walk, run, or jump. The discs give your back the flexibility to bend and twist.
The discs align with the bodies of the vertebrae. Together, the cylindrical discs and the cylindrical bodies form a strong but flexible column.
Discs can herniate in a few ways:
Each disc consists of a fibrous outer shell called an annulus. The annulus surrounds a gel-like interior called a nucleus. When the disc gets injured, the annulus can tear or separate.
The nucleus protrudes through the opening. As a result, the disc becomes misshapen, placing stress on nearby ligaments, muscles, tendons, and discs. The protruding nucleus can compress the spinal cord and nerves radiating from it.
Force on the disc can compress it without rupturing the annulus. Instead, the disc deforms from a cylinder shape into a barrel shape. The bulging sides can stress the ligaments and muscles supporting the back. They can also pinch the spinal cord and radiating nerves.
Back trauma can allow the discs to slip out of place. Normally, the ligaments connecting the vertebrae hold the discs in place. But these ligaments can stretch or tear, allowing discs and vertebrae to move relative to each other.
A slipped disc can put stress on the soft tissue of the back and impinge on nearby nerves.
What are the Symptoms of a Herniated Disc?
A herniated disc does not necessarily cause symptoms. But compressed discs can stress the ligaments that connect vertebrae, leading to back sprains. They can also add to the stress on the muscles and tendons of the back, thereby causing back strain.
In either case, you might experience:
- Back pain
- Limited range of motion
The most severe symptoms come when a herniated disc presses on your nerves. All of the nerves connecting the brain to the body pass through the spinal canal. At each vertebra, the nerves radiate out from the spinal cord into various parts of the body.
A herniated disc can cause two primary problems. First, the disc can physically compress the nerve. This can disrupt the signals traveling along the nerve.
Secondly, the disc can irritate the nerve, causing it to swell and become inflamed. This inflammation can cause the irritated nerve to send pain signals throughout the body.
Some of the symptoms of nerve damage from a herniated disc include:
- Pain in the legs, buttocks, shoulders, and arms
- Burning sensations
- Loss of coordination
- Loss of dexterity
When you experience these symptoms after a back injury, your disc may have caused a spinal cord injury. It may also have pinched the nerve roots that radiate from the spinal cord in a condition called radiculopathy.
What Complications Can Arise from Herniated Discs?
In some cases, you might develop additional problems from a herniated disc, including:
Degenerative Disc Disease
When one disc gets compressed, additional stress gets put onto the undamaged discs. This can create a domino effect in which each disc along your spine begins to dehydrate and crack as its neighbor degenerates.
Your nerves include motor nerves, autonomic nerves, and sensory nerves. In addition to causing misfires of your motor and sensory nerves, a herniated disc can cause misfires of your autonomic nerves.
The autonomic nerves control your heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and sexual arousal. Compressed nerves can lead to an irregular heartbeat, irregular respiration, high or low blood pressure, and sexual dysfunction.
What is the Treatment for Herniated Discs?
Doctors cannot repair herniated discs. Sometimes, doctors can treat nerves that are inflamed by a herniated disc with anti-inflammatory drugs injected into the spinal canal.
Doctors can remove the disc and fuse the adjacent vertebrae for severe impingements. This surgery can relieve nerve problems, but the back will often lose flexibility near the fused vertebrae. Worse yet, the fused vertebrae will increase the stress on the adjacent discs, accelerating their degeneration.
Doctors can also replace damaged discs with artificial discs. This option has existed since 2004, but research has not yet proven that this surgery provides better outcomes than spinal fusion.
What are the Risk Factors for Herniated Discs?
Discs can suffer damage in any type of accident that causes back trauma, including:
Car accidents create some unique physics that tend to cause back injuries. In a crash, your body keeps moving at the same speed as your car after you collide with another vehicle. When you hit something, like your seatbelt, your body suddenly stops.
This sudden stop hyperextends your spine. As you come to a stop, your spine rebounds and compresses. This compression can crush discs, causing them to herniate.
Falls from an elevation and slip and fall accidents can compress discs, causing them to herniate. They can also fracture vertebrae, allowing discs to move out of place.
Repetitive motions can cause discs to wear down. As they wear, they become more likely to herniate.
What Kind of Compensation Can You Seek for Herniated Discs?
Injury compensation should account for your current and future medical expenses, as well as any lost income. After a herniated disc, you could face substantial costs for surgery, pain medication, and physical therapy. These costs could go on for years, as doctors cannot repair a herniated disc.
Your damages also include your lost income if you miss work or have to change jobs due to your injury. You can also recover compensation for your pain, mental anguish, and lost activities.