Spine Injuries from an Accident: Get the Basics

Car accidents are a rising trend in spine injuries. Here’s what you need to know about accident-related injuries, treatment, recovery, legal issues and more.

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Every time you get in the car, you take the risk—however small—of injuring your spine. In fact, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCSC), motor vehicle accidents (MVAs)—mostly cars, but also bulldozers, steamrollers, forklifts and other unclassified vehicles--are a rising trend in spinal cord injury (SCI) causes and rank as the number one cause of spine injury among its enrollees1,2.

Spine injury car accidentCar accidents are a rising source of back injury

We’re not saying cars are perilous paralysis machines, but although the risk of an accident is small and the risk of a resulting serious spine injury is smaller still, it’s not nothing. Here’s what you need to know if you’re ever in an MVA: what injuries you might sustain, how you can get them treated, how you can recover, and insurance and legal issues you need to know about.

What Are Some Common MVA-related Spine Injuries?


Whiplash—also known as whiplash-associated disorder, or WAD— is one of the most typical injuries following an MVA, especially when someone is rear-ended. It is a neck (cervical spine) injury that occurs when the neck suddenly snaps back and forth in a rapid movement—much like the cracking of a whip—resulting in trauma to the tissues in the neck.

Symptoms of whiplash usually develop within a few days of the accident and can include:

  • Depression
  • Disturbances in sleep
  • Feeling dizzy and/or tired
  • Feeling irritated for no known reason
  • Headaches that typically originate in at the base of the skull
  • Loss of or limited neck movement
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms
  • Pain or tenderness that can appear in the upper back, shoulders, or even the arms
  • Problems with concentration or memory
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Stiffness and pain in the neck


Spine injury car accident whiplashWhiplash is a common injury resulting from a MVA

Herniated Disc

The discs in the spine cushion the vertebrae and act as shock absorbers. They consist of a soft, jelly-like center and a tough exterior. A herniated disc (which may also be called a ruptured disc or bulging disc) occurs when the soft center leaks through a crack in the exterior and places pressure on the surrounding nerves and nerve roots.

This can naturally occur as the result of age or certain occupations that involve a lot of repetitive pushing, pulling, bending, or twisting. Herniated discs also commonly appear following a trauma to the spine such as an MVA.

Symptoms of a herniated disc depend on where the herniation occurs and can include:

  • Muscle weakness near the affected nerves
  • Sharp, burning pain that can radiate from the shoulders or low back to the arms or legs
  • Tingling or numbness in the legs or arms

In some cases, patients may not experience symptoms and do not discover a herniation until tested for another issue. However, those with symptoms—especially after an MVA—should seek professional care as soon as possible.

Vertebral Fractures

Like other bones in the body, vertebrae are susceptible to fractures of all severities and can appear anywhere along the spine. Though many are mild and may heal with minimal intervention over time, major trauma to the spine can result in other serious conditions, including:

  • Burst fractures, where the vertebra fractures in multiple places and bony fragments damage the spinal cord itself, which can result in paralysis and even death
  • Flexion/distraction fracture, an injury commonly seen in head-on collisions where the upper part of the body is thrown forward while the bottom remains in place—likely via a seatbelt—and tears the vertebra apart (distraction)  
  • Vertebral compression fractures (VCFs), which cause the front of the vertebra to collapse while the back remains in positions resulting in a wedge shape; though more commonly associated with osteoporosis, people with healthy bone mass can experience a VCF through a high-energy event like a car accident

Fractures of the spine can cause moderate to severe pain that gets worse with movement. Additionally, if the spinal cord is injured as well, patients may experience tingling, numbness, or weakness in the limbs and/or loss of bladder/bowel function.

Due to increased safety equipment in cars, spinal fractures are rare except for the most severe MVAs.

How Are Spine Injuries Diagnosed and Treated After an MVA? 

Spine injury car accident imagingMRI studies are often helpful in diagnosing a spine injury after an accident

Your doctor will first review your medical history and the accident itself. Next will usually come an imaging study and possibly other tests, such as:

  • Computed tomography (CT) scans
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • X-ray
  • Evoked potential testing, a way of measuring how fast nerve signals reach the brain (in the event an SCI is suspected)

How and when these methods of imaging are used depend on the accident and the state of your spine. If you’re brought to the hospital following an MVA with a suspected spine injury, imaging will likely be performed first to rule out (or in) and potentially life-threatening injuries to the spine like a spinal cord injury.

SpineUniverse Editorial Board member Dwight Tyndall, MD, of DrSpine.com noted that with modern ER evaluation protocols and imaging it is very unlikely for a severe spinal injury to be missed. He also noted that for patients who might need surgery, the surgical treatments have advanced significantly.

Treatment of these injuries can range from a soft collar, chiropractic care, and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications to corticosteroid injections, nerve blocks, and physical therapy. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to correct certain injuries when all other methods of treatment have failed in resolving symptoms.

What Is Recovery Like from A Spine Injury Following an MVA?

Each case, accident and injury is unique, and prognosis will ultimately depend on several factors, such as age, health, and the severity of the accident. For example, whiplash is a condition that patients do fully recover from—it then becomes a matter of how long it takes to fully heal. More extreme injures like a burst fracture may take a long time to resolve or may involve surgery to address the symptoms.  

What Legal Issues Might Arise from Sustaining a Spine Injury as the Result of an MVA? 

Spine injury car accident claim formYou may be entitled to compensated after a MVA

Unfortunately, patients who have suffered a spine injury following an MVA may face thousands of dollars in medical bills with time. This is especially true if there is equipment or services needed for long-term care, such as physical therapy. You might want to consider something like a personal injury claim if the accident is through no fault of your own for compensation for problems such as:

  • A loss of employment benefits
  • A loss of wages or the ability to earn
  • Medical expenses, such as medications or physician visits
  • Pain and suffering, or inconvenience

Patients should consult with a specialist when considering filing a personal injury claim.

What About Workers’ Comp for a Spine Injury Following an MVA?

If your spine is injured in an accident while you’re on the clock, you might be entitled to workers’ comp. Workers’ compensation is a type of insurance that offers a replacement of wages and medical benefits to workers who have been injured while performing their duties. This includes injures that occurred while operating a motor vehicle, such as a truck or forklift.

It is very important for the injured worker to file an injury report as soon as possible so that there is documentation to support the claim. Waiting to file a report will put in question whether there even was an injury.

A workers’ compensation claim works a little differently than a personal injury claim, primarily due to what it covers. For example, “pain and suffering” would not be covered by workers’ compensation, but other items may be like vocational training in the event a patient is unable to return to their original occupation following the injury.

Regardless of what happens down the line, spine injuries after an MVA should never be taken lightly or ignored. Patients need to be proactive in their approach to care following an MVA to avoid further injury in the future.

Updated on: 06/22/20
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Dwight S. Tyndall, MD, FAAOS
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