Herniated Disc from a Car Accident? What to Expect During Your Recovery

Have you recently been injured in a car accident?

If so, you’re not alone. The National Safety Council estimates there are around 10 million collisions each year, ranging from fender-benders to multi-car pileups.

Consider a few disturbing statistics about car accidents in the US:

  • An average of 37,000 people are killed every year
  • 2.35 million people are injured or disabled each year
  • Road accidents cost $230.6 billion annually, averaging $820/person

Among the most common injuries from car accidents are whiplash and herniated discs.

What causes these spinal injuries? How are they treated? And what can you expect during herniated disc recovery?

In this post, we’ll provide the answers to these important questions. We’ll also help you determine if you should contact a car injury lawyer.

Spinal Anatomy 101

Before we delve into herniated disc recovery, let’s take a look at the anatomy of our spines.

The spine is made up of 24 bones known as vertebrae. For medical purposes, they’re divided into three sections:

  • Cervical vertebrae (C1-C7), located in the neck
  • Thoracic vertebrae (T1-T12), located in the upper and middle back
  • Lumbar vertebrae (L1-L5), located in the lower back

These bones form the framework for our entire body. They give us the strength to stand, move and work.

They also have the vitally important role of protecting our spinal cord. The spinal cord is a pathway of nerves and electrical connections that carry messages between your muscles and brain.

Anatomy of a Disc

Between each of your vertebrae lies an intervertebral disc. These discs are flat and round and average about half an inch thick.

Discs are made of two main components:

  • Annulus fibrosus: a tough, flexible outer ring that holds the disc in place
  • Nucleus pulposus: the soft, jelly-like center that cushions the vertebrae

The main purpose of these discs is to protect and support your spine during physical activity. They act as shock absorbers so you don’t injure yourself while you move.

Herniated discs are most common in the lumbar spine (lower back). In some cases, they may also occur in the cervical spine (neck).

For this article, we’ll assume that your herniated disc injury is located in your lower back.

What Happens When a Disc Herniates?

Our spinal cords are incredibly strong and durable. They carry us through decades of work, sports, and other activities, often with few or no problems.

During the aging process, mild disc degeneration is normal. As our discs lose some of the fluid that keeps them flexible, the outer layer can form tiny cracks or tears. This makes it possible for the nucleus to slip out, or herniate.

However, sudden trauma (such as a car accident) can cause instant damage to the spinal cord and supporting structures.

In this type of injury, the jelly-like center of the disc is pushed against the outer ring. This generally causes pain and discomfort due to the pressure placed on the nerves.

If the trauma is severe enough, the center of the disc may slip right through the outer ring. When this happens, the nucleus “breaks,” or herniates.

Symptoms of a Herniated Disc

How do you know if you have a herniated disc?

Interestingly, only a minority of people with herniated discs experience severe symptoms. If the disc isn’t pressing on your nerves, you may not have any pain at all.

Let’s assume you are experiencing some level of pain or discomfort. Here are some common symptoms of herniated discs:

  • Intermittent lower back pain
  • Pain down one or both legs
  • Pain in one or both feet
  • Numbness and tingling in the legs or feet
  • Weakness in the legs or feet
  • Loss of bladder and bowel control (very rare)

Because some people experience few or no symptoms, getting a proper diagnosis can be a challenge.

We’ll talk more about the diagnosis process later. First, let’s clear up a few common misconceptions about herniated discs.

Understanding Your Pain

One of the most frustrating things you may face during herniated disc recovery is a lack of clear answers about your condition.

For example, how many of these terms have you heard?

  • Herniated disc
  • Bulging disc
  • Slipped disc
  • Ruptured disc
  • Disc protrusion
  • Pinched nerve
  • Sciatica

Doctors may use these terms interchangeably, but are they all the same?

Not necessarily. Some refer to nerve pain, while others to pain in the spinal cord. Other terms refer to the various stages of disc degeneration or injury.

The problem is that healthcare professionals don’t agree on the precise definition of any of these terms. A surgeon might refer to your injury one way, while a chiropractor may use different terminology.

As a result, patients can feel frustrated and even unsure of their diagnosis.

What can you do to decipher all the medical jargon? Rather than focusing on the exact term (or terms) used to describe your injury, it’s more helpful to gain a clear understanding of the diagnosis.

This is the first step on your road to herniated disc recovery.

What Your Doctor Will Do

When you visit your doctor after a car accident, you can expect four things:

  • A review of your medical history
  • A discussion about your current symptoms
  • A complete physical exam
  • One (or more) diagnostic tests

Again, try not to focus on the terms your doctor uses as much as the precise cause of your symptoms.

Based on your symptoms, your doctor will classify your disc problem in one of two ways.

Nerve Pain

If your pain radiates down through your hip, butt, leg, or foot, you’re most likely experiencing nerve pain. A common medical term for this type of pain is sciatica, due to inflammation of the sciatic nerve.

With this type of injury, the disc itself is not the source of the pain. Rather, the disc is putting pressure on a nerve (hence the term “pinched nerve”).

In some cases, fluid leaking from the disc causes irritation of the nerve. This leads to the radiating pain and discomfort mentioned earlier.

Disc Pain

Is your pain confined to your low back? Do you feel it right on or beside your spine?

In this case, the disc itself is causing the pain. This is commonly referred to as axial pain.

Reaching a Diagnosis

Once you’ve reviewed your symptoms with your doctor, he’ll perform a physical exam and possibly order a diagnostic test.

Here’s what you can expect during this second step on the road to herniated disc recovery.

Physical Exam

Your doctor will first test for pain during palpation (touch) or movement. This will give a clearer idea of what’s causing your pain.

For example, in a Straight Leg Raise (SLR) test, you’ll lie on your back while your doctor lifts your leg. If you experience pain down the back of your leg and below the knee, this usually indicates a pinched nerve.

Your doctor may also use a small, painless reflex hammer to test your nerve function. Little or no reaction to common reflex points could signal nerve compression.

Pain in the spine or the surrounding muscles may signal axial pain in a herniated disc. Your doctor may also look for muscle twitching, weakness, or other signs of injury.

Diagnostic Tests

In some cases, a physical exam may be sufficient to make a diagnosis.

If more clarification is needed, though, your doctor may order one or more diagnostic tests. These provide an inside look at the spine, discs, and any nerve impingement.

CT Scan

This is probably the most common diagnostic test for disc problems. It works like an X-ray by shooting beams through the body, but it provides much more information than a standard X-ray.

Computers reformat the image to provide detailed cross-sections of the spine. Often this allows the doctor to make an accurate diagnosis.

MRI

An MRI, or Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan, provides further details about the condition of the spinal discs.

MRIs can reveal the height, alignment, and configuration of the discs. It can also show the hydration level and location of any fluid leaks.

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your doctor may order an MRI to make a more specific diagnosis.

Discogram

In rare cases, if your doctor recommends surgery, he may first order a diagnostic discogram. The purpose of this procedure is to determine exactly which disc is the source of your pain.

The doctor will inject radiographic dye directly into the suspected disc or discs. Your reaction to the test determines the source of the pain.

Once your doctor has definitely determined your diagnosis, you’re one step closer to herniated disc recovery.

Treatment for Herniated Discs

Now that you understand the problem and the diagnosis process, let’s talk more about herniated disc recovery.

What should you expect in the days, weeks, and months ahead?

In some cases, a herniated disc will gradually improve over several days or weeks. Many patients are free of symptoms after three or four months.

However, most people do experience setbacks and episodes of pain during herniated disc recovery. This is normal. And the good news is you have many treatment options available.

Nonsurgical

In the vast majority of cases, herniated disc recovery is possible without surgery.

Immediately following the accident, your doctor will tell you to rest for a few days. This gives your body a chance to start the healing process.

Try to avoid sitting or lying down for prolonged periods of time. Any movements you make should be slow and controlled to avoid aggravating the disc. Avoid any heavy lifting or bending forward until your pain subsides.

For pain relief, you may take over-the-counter NSAIDs or prescribed painkillers from your doctor. You can also alternate ice and heat packs to help dull the pain.

As your herniated disc recovery continues, you may wish to seek other treatments like:

  • Chiropractic care
  • Physical therapy
  • Massage therapy
  • Acupuncture

These therapies can help your body to heal faster and return to its previous state. They can also provide natural pain relief during the healing process.

If your pain is severe and none of the above remedies bring relief, your doctor may recommend an epidural steroid injection. This injection goes directly into your spinal cord to reduce pain and inflammation.

Surgical

In rare cases, full herniated disc recovery may require surgical intervention.

This should always be viewed as last resort. Your doctor will only recommend surgery if none of these other treatments have relieved your disc pain.

The most common type of surgical procedure for herniated discs is a lumbar microdiscectomy. The surgeon removes the herniated part of the disc, as well as any fragments that are irritating the spinal nerve.

Following the surgery, your doctor may prescribe a short course of physical therapy to help you resume your normal activities.

What Is Herniated Disc Recovery Like?

The answer to this question depends much on the severity of your injury and what type of treatment you pursue.

No two cases of herniated disc recovery are alike. Each of our bodies responds differently to different treatments. What works for one person may not necessarily work for another.

Herniated disc recovery can be a long, painful, and frustrating road.

That’s why it’s so important you have the help you need following an accident, not just medically but also legally.

Do You Need a Lawyer?

There’s nothing easy about the aftermath of a car accident, especially when you factor in a serious injury.

In addition to dealing with your own pain and anxiety, you may also face major medical bills, car repair bills, and loss of income.

After learning more about herniated disc recovery, you may decide to seek the help of a personal injury lawyer.

If you are suffering from discogenic pain, Stephen Babcock is standing by to help you.

Your case — and your future will be our top priority.  When we meet with you, we will review your case with you for free and after you hire us you will have Stephen’s 100% Client Satisfaction Guarantee.

If you have any questions about this article or want to visit with a lawyer for free, call Stephen at (225) 222-2625 or contact us here.

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– Stephen Babcock