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Cervical Disc Injuries

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Jeff Sevey

Your neck, by the very nature of its anatomy, is a vulnerable part of your body - especially so in the event of trauma due to a car accident. It is relatively unprotected, moves and flexes in a variety of different directions, and is topped off by a very heavy object - your head. The weight of your head, combined with the forces involved in a car accident, spell trouble for the bones and other tissues of your neck. This is why cervical disc injuries are present after so many accidents.

What is Cervical Disc?

Your spine is made up of a column of vertebrae, and in-between each vertebra lies a spongy, padded disc made of a strong but flexible outer shell, and a jelly-like interior, called the nucleus. This is a disc. The function of a disc is to add padding and shock absorption to the spine, as well as protection to the spinal cord and spinal nerves.

The spine has three regions - cervical (neck and upper back), thoracic (middle back), and lumbar (lower back). The cervical portion of the spine contains seven vertebrae.

As we've discussed, the spine is a vulnerable part of your body. When you get in an accident in a car, on a motorcycle, falling from a height, or slipping and falling, just to name a few potential situations, there are several injuries to the neck that are common. One of the most common is damage to one or more cervical discs, resulting in pain and lessened mobility.

Who is at Risk for Cervical Disc Injuries?

When it comes to an accident scenario, anyone can be at risk. But age does play into the equation as well. You see, as you age, your discs become less pliable, and your vertebrae may wear down and become more fragile. This is called spinal degenerative disease. That there are certain groups of people, such as those who are elderly or have osteoporosis, that may be more vulnerable to a disc injury due to this degenerating process.

What is a Cervical Disc Injury?

While cervical vertebrae can, indeed, break, it is much more common after an accident to see an injury involving one or more discs. Two of the more common disc injuries are a bulging disc and a herniated disc.

A bulging disc occurs when a part of the disc’s outer capsule weakens, and the nucleus presses outward, often impinging on spinal nerves. A herniated disc occurs when there is a tear in the disc’s outer capsule, and the nucleus seeps outward from the tear, impinging and possibly surrounding the spinal nerves. Both of these injuries result in the same types of pain: axial pain and radicular pain.

Axial pain is pain felt where the disc is compromised in and on the neck. Radicular pain is pain resulting from the impinged nerve. This pain can radiate up into the head, downward into the back, or outward down the arms.

How are Disc Injuries Caused?

As with any injury, there can be many causes. What’s different about the neck area is that it really doesn’t take a severe accident to cause cervical disc injuries. Even a seemingly minor car accident can result in neck injuries that cause severe amounts of pain and lessened mobility.

Other ways cervical disc injuries can occur are through contact sports such as hockey or football, degenerative disc disease, diving accidents, or physical altercations.

Symptoms of Cervical Disc Injury

The symptoms of a bulging or herniated disc include, but certainly aren’t limited to, the following:

  • Radicular arm pain that shoots from the neck down one arm;
  • Numbness in your neck, shoulder, or arm;
  • Shoulder pain;
  • Unexplained muscular weakness;
  • Neck pain;
  • If degeneration of the disc is present, you may hear a crunching sound along with neck pain upon movement.

Keep in mind that many people who have cervical disc injuries have no symptoms at all that show up immediately. Weeks, or even months later, you may begin experiencing pain at the site of the injury, or down one or the other arm.

Cervical Disc Injury Diagnosis

Because soft tissue injuries are hard to diagnose via normal x-ray films, your doctor may choose to utilize a variety of imaging protocols to help diagnose your injury:

  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) - An MRI uses a strong magnetic field combined with radio waves to image the area cross-sectionally. This cross-section format enables a trained radiologist to see bulges or herniations in discs.
  • CT (Computerized Tomography) scan - A CT scan is like a 3D x-ray and the result is several cross-sectional images of the area of injury. Contrast dye may or may not be warranted with a CT scan.
  • Cervical myelogram - Contrast dye is injected into the fluid surrounding the spine, and regular x-ray films are taken. A radiologist can easily spot a bulging or herniated disc as the contrast dye will “outline” the area.

Cervical Disc Injury Treatments

Most physicians begin with a conservative approach, prescribing rest, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, and stretches or exercises designed to help a patient regain flexibility and muscularity in the neck.

Physical therapy may be required in some instances, and if these conservative approaches do not help, the next step may be spinal cortisone injections. These injections work directly at the site of the injury to reduce the inflammation that is causing the nerve impingement, and therefore, the pain. While they usually will temporarily reduce the pain, they do not fix the underlying problem.

The last-resort step if you still aren’t finding relief is surgery. Your physician will refer you to a surgeon, and you will likely have nerve testing such as an electromyogram (EMG) and nerve conduction studies, which will measure how well your nerves are functioning in relation to your injury.

If you’ve been a victim of cervical neck injuries due to an accident that wasn’t your fault, you are entitled to compensation for the injuries you’ve suffered. Medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering are all damages that you may be entitled to. Contact The Sevey Law Firm for a free, confidential consultation. We can assess your case, and give you our educated opinion regarding the strength of your case, and advise you of your legal rights. Call us today at  (916) 788-7100 or contact us online here.

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