Back Injuries After Car Accidents: Here’s What You Need to Know

Back injuries from car accidents can be life-altering. They can bring years of chronic pain, impede your ability to work, and can lead to additional complications.

They should be taken seriously and handled with the utmost care. 

Here’s everything you need to know if you got a back injury in a car accident, from average settlements to what you should do next.

How much is a back injury worth in a car accident?

By law, the formula is always the same.

I’ll give you an idea of the average settlement for a car accident back injury by starting with adding up your medical expenses to date. Then we’ll add up your wage losses to date. Then, we’ll consider your pain and suffering.

Finally, we ask ourselves, what the future is likely to hold? Will you be able to work? Will you need additional surgery?

While I can’t give you a breakdown of what your specific case will look like, I can give you some ballpark figures.

For minor, soft-tissue back injuries your case will probably be worth under $100K. These are 4-to-5-figure cases. This will all depend on how much treatment you require and what your medical bills look like. If you are in physical therapy for three months, see your doctor three times, and took an ambulance, then your medical expenses are worth about $10K. Your wage losses will depend entirely on your income, which means there is no normal amount that you get, and it will depend on how long you were unable to work. In these cases, the damage to the car is usually moderate and can be repaired.

What about the big 6-figure cases? Those include ambulance rides, ER treatments, ER workups with x-rays, scans, and other diagnostics, up to one full day in the hospital, up to one month of wage loss due to injury, about three months of PT, injections for pain, and the risk of ongoing problems after treatment. Your car was probably totaled and will have to be replaced.

What kind of back injuries can you get from a car accident?

• Muscle strains, ligament tears, or soft-tissue injuries.
• Soft-tissue injuries with pre-existing arthritis. 
• Fractures and stress fractures.

Soft-Tissue Back Injuries

Soft-tissue back injuries are the most common back injuries in a car accident. Most people only suffer from a muscle or ligament tear, also known as a sprain or a strain. When you sprain or strain your ankle, you have a relatively minor injury on your hands. When you sprain or strain your back, you have an entirely different issue.

These injuries produce swelling and pain. They reduce and restrict your motion while they heal. Furthermore, your back and neck aren’t as strong as your ankles are! The spine is much more delicate. These issues are also far more significant.

Once these muscles or ligaments are torn, the neck and back begin to spasm. Those spasms prevent you from moving beyond the stretch point. The pain is meant to stop you from ripping the muscle further.

Treatment could include physical therapy, acupuncture, heat, ice, electrical stimulation from a TENS unit, traction, water therapy, and exercise. All of these therapies are meant to help you regenerate the muscle and the ligaments. 

Soft-Tissue Injuries with Pre-Existing Arthritis

These are worth mentioning because pre-existing conditions can complicate your case a great deal. The older we get, the more arthritis threatens, and the more of an impact a back sprain or strain can have on us. It becomes harder to recover because we’re less flexible. 

In addition, these injuries can cause additional neurological symptoms. The trauma can create numbness, tingling, pain, and loss of feeling. These injuries can also lead to herniated discs. If the damage is bad enough, an arthritic individual is even at risk for paralysis.

On one hand, this should be taken into account in your pain and suffering award. On the other, the defense will try to use your pre-existing condition against you, saying that their driver didn’t really cause the extent of damage that you’re claiming. A skilled attorney can help you navigate these bad-faith arguments. 

Fractures and Stress Fractures

If you’re lucky, a fractured vertebra only needs to be immobilized for a certain period of time but heals normally.

In rarer cases, the fracture damages the spinal cord, leading to paraplegia or quadriplegia.

Fortunately, these types of injuries are rarer than they once were thanks to seatbelts and airbags!

Do car accident back injuries always need surgical treatment?

Not always. When they do it is often after medical professionals have determined that you’re not going to have success with physical therapy. From there they might move to cortisone injections, or epidurals, to help you manage the pain. Yet these shots only provide temporary relief.

In these cases, you’d generally be sent in for an MRI. This is helpful to your case because if you need surgery, the MRI will be able to provide an objective finding of compression or impingement.

Surgical intervention may be the only way to solve the associated symptoms, such as numbness, loss of sensation, or ongoing pain in the extremities.

Surgery can be done either with a scope, a microsurgery in which you are not fully opened. During this procedure, the doctor makes a small hole to scrape arthritis away from the bone, creating more room for the nerves so they are no longer pinched or impinged.

If microsurgery isn’t sufficient then a more open procedure may be done to remove part of the disc.

In the most severe cases, the disc can be removed and your spine can be fused so there is no more impingement.

There are downsides to radical surgeries. They put additional weight on other portions of your spine. That means the areas just above and just below your surgery will continue to deteriorate. That means you’ll likely need additional surgery in the future, and your settlement must consider those future surgeries.

Laser ablation is also an option. Picture your spine. You have the spinal cord, and you have the nerves that branch out. When damage compresses these nerves they come into contact with other nerves, which then cause pain. Doctors can use lasers to slice the nerve root out to ensure that it stops hurting. These surgeries are only good for 5 to 10 years as the nerves do grow back, but during that time you may be able to avoid another round by exercising and taking care of yourself. 

The stronger you are prior to the accident, the less surgery and recovery you will likely need, but every body is different. We take that strength into account when we work to negotiate your final settlement.

What should I do if my back hurts after a car accident?

After any major collision, you should immediately call the police, then get checked out at the emergency room. This is just standard no matter what kinds of injuries you have. In this case, you should see a lawyer within a week: you have a major personal injury case on your hands. This goes double for a case where your car was totaled. 

If the collision was a minor one and you don’t go to the ER then you should see your doctor either that day or the next day. The longer you wait to get medical care the harder it is going to be to draw a direct line from your car accident to your injuries, which is what you want if you want to have a strong case against the other driver. 

If there was just a small tap with no real damage, then jurors are going to have a hard time believing there was an injury. You might just be better off working with the insurance company. They may offer you a small settlement, but it might be enough to cover you. Read more about dealing with insurance companies here.

Middle Back Pain After a Car Accident

Middle back pain can come from a variety of sources, including the aforementioned sprains and strains. Whiplash is another common cause of mid-back pain after a car accident. These injuries are also known as thoracic sprains and strains.

Lower Back and Hip Pain After a Car Accident

Again, you’re looking at sprains and strains as the most common form of lower back pain. After accidents, it’s also common to see a lot of hip fractures, which can refer pain to your lower back area.

Delayed Lower Back Pain After Car Accidents

Delayed lower back pain is a controversial subject in the field of personal injury law!

We know that it happens. Sometimes pain takes a good deal of time to show up. Sometimes, if you have a lot of injuries, you might not even realize how much pain you’re in thanks to shock, and your natural endorphins.

Unfortunately, any time you’re involved in a serious accident most jurors expect the person to have symptoms at the scene. They are skeptical of cases where pain shows up three days later. So are insurance companies. It’s hard to get them to pay, and not all attorneys will take these cases. 

Your best bet? To go ahead and go to the ER or a doctor and get checked out whether you think you’re in pain or not. If there’s an injury your doctor will be able to find objective proof that injury exists. This will also be a sign that you thought you were hurt seriously enough to require medical attention.

Major spinal injuries?

If your car was totaled in a recent accident and you suffered from any back injuries, contact my Roseville or Auburn office immediately. I’ve been winning these cases since 1994. Ideally, you’ll call me before you give statements or authorizations to any other person, as I can help you strengthen and protect your case.

You can call me right from the ER if you want. Call my mobile phone at (530) 305-7396. I’ll meet with you over Zoom or come meet with you personally to ensure that your rights and your future compensation are protected.

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About Barry A. Zimmerman

Barry A. Zimmerman HeadshotBarry A. Zimmerman opened his firm in Auburn, California in 1994. Mr. Zimmerman has been practicing law since 1987. He has been recognized by Sacramento Magazine in the August 2020 issue as one of the top attorneys in the Sacramento area. Mr. Zimmerman has consistently been recognized by his peers as a Northern California Super Lawyer. In addition to his practice in civil law, Mr. Zimmerman is the senior attorney at the Cohen Defense Group specializing in criminal defense. Mr. Zimmerman has also been certified as a specialist in Criminal Law by the State Bar of California for over 15 years.