A neck or back injury can range from mild to severe, resulting in a potentially life-long disability. Here’s what to do if you’ve been hurt.
Neck, back, and spinal cord injuries are among the most devastating because they have such a tremendous effect on your lifestyle and your body’s overall physical function.
When someone breaks a bone, they likely have to modify their activities for a period of time to allow for that particular body part to heal. Staying off a broken leg or learning to write with your non-dominant hand can be challenging and inconvenient, but it’s usually manageable.
Back and neck pain, on the other hand, can make it impossible to stand, sit, or even lie down in a comfortable position. It can restrict you from doing even the most simple activities, and it can prevent you from being able to work. Whether your job involves manual labor or is sedentary, a back, neck, or spinal cord injury can make it impossible to work pain-free.
How do I cope after a back, neck, or spinal cord injury?
First, make sure you’re getting the medical treatment you need to begin healing and manage your pain.
Second, consider the costs of medical treatment, lost income, and other lifestyle modifications (like home help and assistive devices). You don’t want unpaid medical bills or other debt to add another layer of stress to an already difficult situation.
If your condition was caused by a specific injury that happened at work, or that’s the result of an accident, you might be able to recover compensation through workers’ compensation benefits or a personal injury claim.
Common neck, back, and spinal cord injuries
Some neck pain can be caused by normal daily activities that include:
- Forward posture while working at a computer, reading, or watching TV
- Using a pillow that isn’t comfortable for you, or too high or flat, or sleeping with your neck bent in an unusual way
- Stress or tension that tightens your muscles
- Work or exercise that requires upper body muscles, lifting, or straining
In most cases, these types of pain will resolve on their own and a patient can self-treat with over-the-counter medication, heat or ice, and rest.
Back and spine injuries, on the other hand, can be a little more complicated.
First, let’s work on the anatomy of the back and spine. Your spine is your backbone, and it protects the spinal cord. There are 33 bones that make up the spine, which extends from the base of your skull to your pelvis. The spine also includes cartilage discs that separate the bones, sort of like shock-absorbers.
If you suffer an injury to the spine, you’ll most likely feel it as back or neck pain.
The spine includes:
- 7 cervical vertebrae (upper spine)
- 12 thoracic vertebrae (neck and upper back)
- 5 lumbar vertebrae (lower back between chest and hips)
- 5 sacrum vertebrae (base of the spine)
- 4 coccyx vertebrae (tailbone)
A back injury can happen in everyday ways, too. For example, you could injure your back by lifting something heavy, falling, or making an awkward twist or turn.
There are some back and neck injuries that are more serious and cause severe and ongoing pain:
- Sprain or strain. This type of injury could result in aches or stiffness that affect your upper arm, shoulder, back, or neck. If you experience shooting pain in your hand or fingers, you might have a pinched nerve (nerve root compression).
- Torn or ruptured disc. A disc herniation is a tear that allows a jellylike substance inside the disc to leak and press against a nerve or the spinal cord. This can cause a range of symptoms, including headache, dizziness, nausea, or pain in shoulders or arms.
Spinal cord injuries (SCI)
A spinal cord injury could result in a life-long disability.
You might’ve heard of the internet referred to as an “information superhighway.” Your spinal cord is like the information superhighway of your body. It’s a bunch of nerves that carry neurons (or impulses) from your brain to certain muscles. When you get hurt, you feel pain when the information travels from the injury back to the brain. But if your spinal cord is damaged, that information can’t be transmitted.
If your spinal cord is damaged, you might experience a loss of sensation in some parts of your body, and you might be unable to control functions like your bladder, bowels, or sexual functions. You could also experience spasms or intense reflexes.
Spinal cord accident injuries could be caused by:
- Car accidents
- Violence (gunshot wounds or stabbings)
- Sports injuries
- Risky behavior related to alcohol use
Neck, back, and spine injuries caused by car accidents
Car accidents are a leading cause of neck, back, and spine accidents. Some of the most common injuries include:
If you’ve been rear-ended in a car accident, you might have experienced whiplash. Whiplash happens when your torso (the midsection of your body) jerks forward when your head moves backward. Your seatbelt usually tightens to stop your body, but the head continues to accelerate forward. That causes the ligaments and muscles in your neck to strain and can damage the spinal cord and vertebrae.
Whiplash can sometimes be treated with massage, physical therapy, medication, and rehabilitation.
A discogenic injury (having to do with discs) happens because of a trauma, like a car accident or fall. These kinds of injuries are diagnosed with an MRI or tomography exam. This could include:
- Lumbar sprain, which is the result of excessive force that causes muscles, ligaments, or tendons in the back to stretch to excess.
- Disc herniation, which is when a disc ruptures and the substance inside affects the nearby nerves.
- Spinal stenosis can happen gradually, or as a result of a trauma like a car crash. A ruptured bone fragment or disc would put pressure on the spinal cord or nerves from the impact.
- Degenerative spine disorders could happen absent a trauma, but can make a patient predisposed to serious injury. An accident can also aggravate a preexisting degenerative spine disorder.
This condition is characterized by nerves and/or the spinal canal being compressed, which causes pain and numbness. Like whiplash, it occurs most frequently when a car is rear-ended at high speed.
Facet joint injuries
Facet joints connect the vertebrae and allow your body to bend and twist. The impact of a car crash can cause a person to move back and forth quickly, which could make the facet joints collide with each other as the neck jerks.
You might experience these symptoms after an accident:
- Neck and shoulder stiffness
- Back pain
It’s important to go to a doctor or hospital for a complete medical evaluation immediately after a car accident, even if you don’t think you have back or neck injury symptoms.
Neck and back injury treatment and recovery
It’s important to seek diagnosis and treatment from a medical professional and not try to treat symptoms yourself. For a minor neck or back injury, these are common treatments that might be prescribed:
- Stabilizing brace. Your doctor might tell you to wear either a neck or back brace to prevent certain parts of your body from moving in a certain way.
- Heat or ice. Heat helps to alleviate muscle tension, and ice can reduce swelling. Depending on the nature of the injury, the doctor might advise you to either use a heat or ice pack on the affected area.
- Pain medication. If you’re offered a prescription painkiller, have a conversation with your doctor about the specific amount and length of time you should take it. Some painkillers are highly addictive and your doctor should advise you of the risks so you can avoid developing a dependence.
- Physical or rehabilitative therapy. Physical therapy helps your body to regain strength, range of motion, and restore muscle loss.
- Surgery. For serious injuries, surgery can be an option. Your doctor will tell you whether it’s recommended that you have surgery or if there’s a non-invasive treatment available.
Some patients feel that there’s benefit in chiropractic care, but some insurance companies see it as alternative medicine, so talk with your attorney to see if your treatment can be covered.
Workers’ compensation benefits for neck, back, and spinal cord injuries
If your injury happened at work, you can claim workers’ compensation insurance benefits.
There are 2 ways an injury can be eligible for workers’ compensation :
- An injury that’s the result of a specific accident or trauma in the workplace
- An injury that developed over time because of repetitive or strenuous work activity
Any accident or injury that happens while at work or during the course of performing work-related tasks should be covered by workers’ compensation. Usually, if it’s a specific incident that causes an injury, it’s pretty straightforward to show that it happened at work — you would need to have medical records to show that you were treated for injuries from the accident.
Back and neck injury that happens as a result of heavy lifting, twisting, or other actions that might not be a specific incident are harder to prove as related to work.
If you believe that your back or neck injury is related to your work, consult a workers’ compensation lawyer for help.
Recovering damages for neck, back, or spinal cord injury
If your injury is the result of an accident — whether a car accident, slip and fall, or something else — that was caused by someone’s negligence, you might be able to recover damages from a personal injury claim in California.
“Negligence” is when a person, company, or other legal entity has a duty of care to a plaintiff and acts (or fails to act) in a way that causes injury. Almost everyone has a duty of care to someone, whether it’s a duty to keep your property free of hazardous conditions, to drive cautiously and not put other drivers or pedestrians at risk, or to sell products that are safe when used in a foreseeable way and don’t cause anyone to be injured.
California sets forth 5 elements that must be present to prove negligence:
- The defendant had a duty to either act or not act in a specific way.
- The defendant breached that duty.
- The breach of duty caused the plaintiff to be injured.
- The defendant should have foreseen (predicted) that someone could be injured by their action or inaction.
- The injury resulted in actual expenses like medical costs, lost wages, pain and suffering, and other compensable damages.
Types of damages you can recover for a back, neck, or spinal cord injury
The law of damages is based on the concept that an injured plaintiff should receive the correct amount of money to compensate them for whatever financial costs were associated with the injury. In other words, the plaintiff is meant to become “whole.”
You could be entitled to economic and non-economic damages, which both fall into the category of “compensatory” damages.
Economic damages compensate you for anything that cost money and has a financial value:
- Medical treatment, including doctor or hospital visits, ambulance transportation, surgery, pain medication, etc.
- Rehabilitative or other physical or occupational therapies
- Lost wages, both past and future
- Diminished earning capacity (if you won’t be able to do the job you had before the accident, or if you won’t be able to work at all)
- Assistance with activities of daily life (if you need to hire a housecleaner, pay for child care services, transportation costs, etc.)
Non-economic damages compensate you for the losses that don’t have a specific monetary value:
- Pain and suffering
- Loss of consortium
- Loss of enjoyment of everyday life
“Loss of enjoyment” is the legal system’s acknowledgement that you deserve to be happy. If your injury prevents you from doing something that was a regular part of your life — like playing a sport, activities with your children, playing a musical instrument, cooking, or whatever it is — that counts for something. It’s harder to quantify how much the dollar value is for loss of enjoyment, but your attorney has methods for figuring out how much it can be in a lawsuit.
Punitive damages can sometimes be added to your compensatory damage award. Punitive damages are designed to punish a defendant for especially egregious or malicious behavior, and to serve as a deterrent so that they don’t take that action again in the future. Whether or not you can receive punitive damages depends on the nature of the injury, the type of defendant (person, company, etc.), and the extent of liability.
California comparative fault law
In a personal injury claim, the California legal system will evaluate not just the defendant’s fault, but also whether the plaintiff had any role in the injury.
Here’s an example:
As you hurried to grab some of your favorite ice cream, you tripped on a loose floor tile and fell. The fall caused you to break 2 vertebrae and you were unable to walk for several weeks.
As it happened, you were wearing shoes with worn-out soles that were very slippery and you were half-jogging in the store because you were in a rush.
The store had a duty to keep the premises free of hazards that could foreseeably cause injury to a customer or employee. Although the facts of the case would be crucial to establishing a settlement amount (like whether a store manager knew or should have known about the condition and failed to warn customers), the court would look at whether you could’ve done something differently to prevent the accident.
In particular, you could expect the defendant’s lawyers to argue that your footwear was unsafe because the soles were worn and slippery. In addition to the fact that you were jogging in the store, this might suggest that you weren’t behaving in a reasonably sensible manner and could have contributed to the accident.
Here’s how these facts would affect damages in California:
The court might find that the store was 75% liable for the accident and you were 25% liable. If the total damages awarded were $100,000, your compensation would be reduced by your 25% of liability, so you’d recover $75,000.
When to call a California personal injury lawyer
Once your medical condition has stabilized (you no longer require emergency treatment), you should contact a lawyer as soon as possible.
Most California personal injury claims have a 2-year statute of limitations, which means you have 2 years from the date of the injury or when it was diagnosed to file a claim. If your claim is against a government agency (for example, a slip and fall on a public sidewalk), you must file your claim within 6 months.
If your back or neck injury is severe or requires ongoing treatment, it’s best to ask a lawyer for advice rather than accepting an insurance settlement right away.
The insurance settlement might sound like a lot of money, and it might cover the costs you’ve already incurred, but it might not take full account of your future expenses.
That’s why your lawyer hires accountants, other financial experts, and medical experts who can offer a more accurate figure for what your injury is worth. Most personal injury lawyers offer a free initial consultation, so you can present your situation and get a lawyer’s assessment for how you should proceed.
Enjuris offers a free directory that can help you find a California personal injury lawyer who is experienced, compassionate, and ready to help you get the compensation you deserve.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.