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Spinal Cord Injuries After a Car Accident: What Are the Long-term Effects?

Approximately 40% of the estimated 17,000 yearly spinal cord injuries in the United States result from car accidents. Motor vehicle accidents have been the leading cause of spinal cord injuries in the United States since the 1970s. The effects of your spinal cord injury from a car accident can last a lifetime. Accident victims might end up with shooting pain from a spine injury, and they could also be dealing with lost wages and high medical expenses.

Anatomy of the Spine

The spinal column is a significant part of your skeleton. It consists of 33 specialized bones called vertebrae. In addition to helping to support your body and keep it upright, part of the function of the spinal column is to help prevent spinal cord injury by protecting the soft tissue of the cord itself. Your spinal cord consists of long strands of nervous tissue that extend from your head down into your lower back and is part of the central nervous system.

Causes of Spinal Injuries From Car Accidents

The impact from a motor vehicle collision can bend or twist your spine in unnatural ways. While the spinal column is flexible, there are limits to its range of motion. Pushing past these limits can lead to spine injuries.

During an auto accident, the combined weight of each vehicle times the speed that each is going at the time of collision exerts a tremendous force that can propel your body forward, backward, up, down, or to either side. The result may be a traumatic spinal injury.

Examples of Common Spinal Injuries From Auto Accidents

Spinal cord injuries from car accidents can be primary, meaning that the severe trauma has damaged the cord directly. Spinal column injuries that result in spinal cord damage are considered secondary spinal cord injuries because the primary damage is to your vertebrae. Here are some examples of spinal cord injuries that can result from a car accident, as well as the symptoms and the long-term effects.

Vertebral Fractures

The vertebrae of the spinal column are susceptible to breaking. Bone fragments from a vertebral fracture can cause spinal cord damage, potentially severing the cord. This is why doctors recommend that you don’t move if you have spinal cord injury symptoms, such as severe back pain, numbness, and tingling in your limbs. Pain from a vertebral fracture may worsen when you try to move, and if the spine injuries involve the cord, they can cause a loss of bowel or bladder control. Spinal injury symptoms such as these require immediate medical care.

Vertebral fractures can range in severity, depending on the injury site. Some are relatively mild and resolve with limited medical intervention. However, some spinal fractures that can result from a car accident are severe and can have long-term effects on your life:

  • Vertebral compression fracture. This type of injury occurs when the back part of a vertebra remains in its anatomic position while the front part collapses. This spine injury causes the vertebra to take on a wedge shape and can put pressure on your cord.
  • Burst fracture. Burst fractures are particularly dangerous spinal fractures because the vertebra breaks up into multiple pieces, and any one of those bone fragments could damage your spinal cord. They are also difficult to treat because putting all the pieces together typically requires surgery. Postoperatively, you may need a long period of immobilization to give the bone fragments time to fuse back together.
  • Flexion-distraction spinal fracture. This is when the bottom part of your body remains in place while the top part travels forward with the force of the collision. This type of spinal injury can pull one or more vertebrae apart. Most seat belts now include shoulder straps to help prevent flexion-distraction spine injuries, or at least lessen their severity, by immobilizing the upper and lower portions of the body during a car accident.

If your doctor suspects that you have a spinal fracture from a car accident, you will probably have X-rays to look for evidence of damage to your vertebrae. For spine injuries, your doctor may also order computed tomography, a more advanced type of X-ray. A CT scan takes detailed pictures of individual slices of the spine, which doctors can then use to look for subtle signs of injury from a car accident.

Herniated Discs

An intervertebral disc is in between any vertebrae in your spinal column. This is a rubbery structure made of flexible cartilage that works as a cushion and a shock absorber for the bones of the spine to help prevent spinal injuries.

Each of your intervertebral discs has two layers. The inner layer is soft and gelatinous, while the outer layer is tough and fibrous to hold the inner layer in place. A traumatic auto accident can cause a tear in the outer layer of the spinal disc, allowing the soft inner layer to leak out. This is called a herniated disc or a ruptured disc.

The herniated disc material can leak into your spinal canal and pressure the cord. Spinal stenosis results when anything happens to narrow the space within the spinal canal and can result in chronic pain. Disc herniation can also put pressure on the nerves that extend from the cord to other body areas.

Symptoms of herniated discs vary depending on where they occur. Disc herniation in the cervical spine can cause radiating pain in your arms. Disc herniation in the lumbar spine can result in your legs tingling or loss of bladder or bowel control.

Bulging Discs

Another type of spine injury that can result from a car accident is a bulging disc. This type of injury affects the structural integrity of the disc’s outer layer without a full rupture. As a result, the outer layer cannot hold the inner layer in place, but the inner layer does not leak out. A bulging disc can cause spinal stenosis or put pressure on the nerves, resulting in changes in sensory or motor function in your limbs.

A doctor may use magnetic resonance imaging to assess for soft tissue injuries from car accidents, such as bulging or ruptured discs. You may also have nerve conduction studies or electromyography to determine whether the injury’s effect on the peripheral nerve roots has resulted in muscle weakness.


Whiplash is probably the most common neck injury from a car accident, especially a rear-end collision. The force of a collision can cause your head to jerk violently back and forth, which can cause soft tissue injury to the ligaments, muscles, tendons, and surrounding nerves of the cervical spine. It can affect the spinal nerves but rarely affects the cord itself. While whiplash typically resolves on its own, limited neck movement numbness may be chronic. Many find that chiropractic care can help alleviate some of these issues.


If a spinal cord injury disrupts the nerve tissue’s ability to relay signals between the brain and the limbs, it can result in paralysis, which is a loss of motor function. The type of paralysis depends on whether there is a partial or complete break. An incomplete cord injury causes spinal cord damage but does not sever it entirely. This can result in partial paralysis, meaning your ability to move is decreased but not completely lost. Physical therapy is often recommended.

Complete paralysis results from a traumatic spinal injury that completely severs the cord, preventing nerve signals from reaching the affected limbs and resulting in total loss of motor and sensory function.

Two types of paralysis are most likely from car accident spine injuries. Paraplegia is paralysis of your legs and lower abdomen and can result from a spinal cord injury of the lumbar or thoracic spine. Quadriplegia affects your arms, legs, and organs of the chest and abdomen, including the lungs and heart, and results from spinal injuries to the cervical spine.

Additional Costs of Spinal Injury

In addition to the physical pain experienced after a traumatic auto accident, many accident victims must file a personal injury claim with an insurance company to help with the medical bills. Anxiety about paying for care can increase the challenges of dealing with spine injuries.

Don’t Face Your Spinal Injury Alone

Because nerve tissue is highly specialized, you need a doctor experienced in treating spinal cord injuries. Call 1-800-Ask-Gary for a free consultation or a medical referral.