The spine can be divided into three distinct areas: cervical vertebrae (neck), thoracic vertebrae (upper back), and lumbar vertebrae (lower back). Each section of the spinal cord and its vertebrae are surrounded by discs, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerves, which if injured can cause varying degrees of pain — from mild to debilitating, and temporary to permanent.
Thoracic Spine Injuries
Generally, injuries to the thoracic spine are the most serious. The thoracic spine, or upper back, connects to the ribs and chest region. Sprains and fractures in this area are primarily caused by high velocity auto accidents, and may result in permanent nerve damage.
Lumbar Spine Injuries
The lumbar spine is comprised of the five largest vertebrae and the strongest of the muscles necessary to provide stability for the spine. Therefore, a sprain or strain to the lumbar spine can prove to be particularly painful. A sprain involves actual damage to the ligaments, while a strain is a stretching of the ligaments, tendons or muscles. Either injury may result in limited movement, swelling, bruising, and tenderness, and may severely impact your ability to perform daily activities.
Some car crash victims experience herniated discs. Discs are the cushions that separate the vertebrae and protect the spine. A herniated disc occurs when a disc is displaced. Often, the herniated disc then places pressure on the spinal cord or its surrounding nerves. Sudden and intense pain in the lower region of the back and numbness in the legs are the most commonly reported symptoms.
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Spinal Cord Injuries
The most serious back injuries involve the spinal cord. Such injuries range from bruising or excessive pressure to permanent damage to the spinal cord and nerves, leading to long term disability. Spinal cord injuries often result in total or partial paralysis, loss of feeling in certain areas of the body, and loss of reflex function. Further, depending on the type of injury or treatment received, victims of spinal cord injuries may also be at risk for secondary medical problems, such as infection due to surgery, blood clots, bleeding, pneumonia, and spinal fluid leaks.
Treatment of Back Injuries
After a car collision, back injuries can be diagnosed — and their severity determined — through the use of x-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and other diagnostic imaging. Once a diagnosis is made, treatment varies according to the type and severity of the injury sustained. Many back injuries require only short-term, temporary treatment, such as pain medication, injections for inflammation, physical therapy, and chiropractic care.
Serious back injuries may require the use of surgical procedures to alleviate pressure on the spinal cord itself or the surrounding nerves. That can mean removing parts of vertebrae, and even fusing vertebrae together after the removal of a ruptured disk.