After a car accident, it is important to pay attention to any symptoms that might indicate you may have suffered a serious spinal cord injury. If handled improperly, a spinal cord injury can be exacerbated and lead to lifelong disability. Spinal cord injuries include injuries to any portion of the nerves that lead to the spine, the spinal cord, or the vertebrae surrounding it. These injuries may cause permanent impairments of sensation, strength, and bodily functions below the injury site. If you have suffered a spinal cord injury, it can affect you emotionally, physically, socially, and mentally. Understanding spinal cord injuries and the symptoms that they can evince after an accident might help you to ensure that you get the treatment that you need to improve your recovery.
How spinal cord injuries occur
A spinal cord injury can happen when the ligaments or disks of the spinal column are damaged. It can also happen when the vertebrae surrounding the spinal cord are damaged or when the spinal cord is damaged.
In a car accident, spinal cord injuries may result from sudden blows to the spine that cause fractures, dislocations, or compressions of the vertebrae. Spinal cord injuries in car accidents can also happen when a penetrating wound occurs and cuts the spinal cord either partially or totally.
Over the days or weeks that follow a spinal cord injury, more damage can occur because of swelling, bleeding, fluid accumulation, and inflammation around the spinal cord. To prevent the additional damage that can happen, getting prompt help when a spinal cord injury is suspected is critical.
Understanding the central nervous system
Your spinal cord and brain make up your central nervous system. The spinal cord is comprised of a bundle of nerve cords and soft tissue that are surrounded by your vertebrae. It extends from the base of the brain down to the pelvic region. Nerves extend out from the spinal cord to different parts of your body. The nerves that extend out to different areas help you to feel sensation and control the muscular movements of your body.
The distal end of the spinal cord ends slightly above your waist. Beneath it is the cauda equina, which is made up of several nerve roots. The nerves inside of the spinal cord transmit messages to and from the brain and out to the rest of your body. Motor nerves carry signals to help to control muscle movements, while sensory nerves carry signals to and from your brain about cold, heat, pain, pressure, and limb positions.
What happens when nerve fibers are damaged?
When nerve fibers are damaged in a car accident, a portion or all of your corresponding nerves and muscles beneath the site of the injury can be impaired. When a nerve root is damaged, pain can radiate along the nerve to the parts of the body that the nerve innervates, including the arms or legs. This is called radiculopathy.
Radiculopathy or radiating pain after a car accident commonly happens when a nerve is impinged by bulging or herniated discs. When the impingement happens in the neck or cervical region, the pain can radiate through the arms. If it occurs in the lumbar region, the pain can radiate through the legs. A thoracic impingement can impact your torso and radiate pain throughout that region.
Symptoms of a spinal injury after an accident
The symptoms of a spinal injury after an accident may vary and depend on its location and severity. Spinal injuries are classified by their neurological levels by their location on the spinal cord and their severity. The neurological level of an injury to the spine is the portion of your spinal cord where it is located. The injury’s severity is referred to as its completeness.
In a complete injury to the spine, all of your motor control ability and your sensation below the site of the injury are lost. An incomplete spinal cord injury occurs when some of your ability to control movement and to feel below the injury site remains. Incomplete injuries occur in varying degrees.
If you suffer paralysis after a spinal cord injury, it might be quadriplegia. Quadriplegia occurs when a severe injury occurs in the thoracic or cervical region that affects your hands, arms, trunk, legs, and pelvic region. Paraplegia occurs when paralysis affects the trunk, pelvic region, and legs. If you suffer paralysis after a car accident, you will experience a partial or total loss of sensation below the location of your injury and may be unable to control the movement of your limbs in the affected region.
Some of the following symptoms and signs might indicate that you have suffered an injury to your spinal cord, including nerve impingement, in an automobile accident:
- Intense sensation of stinging or pain
- Radiating pain
- Pain or stiffness of the lower back, mid-back, or neck
- Burning pain radiating through the arms, buttocks, or legs
- Weakness, cramping, or numbness of the legs, arms, or hands
- Loss of sensation of the feet
- Foot drop
- Difficulty with coordination of the hands
- Loss of sexual functioning
- Partial or total loss of motor control
- Partial or total loss of sensation below the injury site
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Exaggerated reflex actions
- Trouble coughing or breathing
- Severe pressure or pain in your back, head, or neck
- Paralysis or a loss of coordination of any portion of the body
- Tingling and numbness in the fingers, toes, feet, or hands
- Trouble walking or balancing
- Oddly positioned back or neck
What to do if you or your loved one experiences these symptoms
If you or your loved one experiences any of the described symptoms of a spinal cord injury in a car accident, immediate medical evaluation is necessary. You should assume that a spinal cord injury has occurred after a motor vehicle accident until a medical evaluation proves otherwise.
The reasons for seeing a doctor immediately after a motor vehicle accident to check for a spinal cord injury include the following:
- Spinal cord injuries are not always immediately recognizable. If a diagnosis and treatment are delayed, the injury may become more severe.
- Paralysis and numbness may either be immediate or happen gradually as swelling or bleeding place pressure on the spinal cord.
- The potential for recovery may be impacted by the time that elapses between the injury and treatment.
If you think that someone else has suffered a neck or back injury in a car accident, do not move him or her. If you move a person who has suffered a spinal cord injury, severe complications, including permanent paralysis, could result. Call 911 to summon help, and try to keep the injured person as still as possible. Place blankets or towels on either side of the person’s neck or hold his or her head and neck to keep the person from moving it until help arrives. Make the victim as comfortable as possible and provide first aid.
If the motor vehicle accident was caused by someone else, you should contact an experienced lawyer after you seek treatment for a spinal cord injury. An attorney might help you to file a claim and negotiate with the insurance company to recover compensation.
In a car accident, spinal cord injuries are among the most serious types of injuries that can occur. By recognizing the signs of a possible injury to your spine, you might be able to minimize the damage and protect your ability to recover. Getting a prompt medical evaluation after a traumatic motor vehicle accident is always important and might help you to avoid an exacerbation of your injuries.