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Spinal Cord Injuries: What Workers Need to Know

Spinal Cord Injuries: What Workers Need to KnowBack injuries are among the most common injuries workers suffer on the job. They can also be some of the most serious – especially when they involve damage to the spinal cord.

In fact, when doctors talk about back injuries, they are usually referring to damage to the soft tissue in the back, such as the muscles and ligaments, rather than the spinal cord. Back injuries typically involve sprains and strains or pulled or torn ligaments. These injuries can be incredibly painful and require costly medical intervention, time off to heal, and even temporary changes to on-the-job responsibilities.

Spinal cord injuries can range from slipped or herniated discs to catastrophic injuries such as paralysis. Any injury to the spinal cord can be life-altering.

With so much on the line, it is vital that workers understand the dangers and potentially lifelong consequences of spinal cord injuries. A worker who suffers a spinal cord injury while on the job should speak with an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer who is knowledgeable about spinal cord injuries.

What makes spinal cord injuries so dangerous?

Damage to any part of the spinal cord may cause permanent changes to a worker’s physical strength and range of motion. More severe injuries could result in the loss of sensation and body movement below the site of the injury.

Depending on the type of spinal injury and the severity, a worker’s entire life may be affected. They may be rendered physically incapable of performing the job they were trained to do – or any job, for that matter. The result is not only lost wages in the short-term, but also dramatic changes to their future earning potential.

In their personal life, a worker who suffers a spinal cord injury may be left unable to participate in certain types of exercise, sports and other physically demanding hobbies. They may have to alter the way they complete simple daily chores such as cleaning or maintaining their home, shopping for groceries, and simply getting from one place to another. Worst of all, taking care of their children or other loved ones may no longer be physically possible.

A spinal cord injury may require expensive, invasive medical treatment such as surgery. Even when surgery is not necessary, the cost of ongoing medical care can be overwhelming. Added to that, treatments can be time consuming, requiring workers to take time away from work and family.

Who is at risk of sustaining a spinal cord injury at work?

Employees across a variety of industries are at risk, although some are more vulnerable to spinal cord injuries based on their job responsibilities. Workers in industries such as manufacturing, construction, trucking, healthcare, firefighting and law enforcement are at increased risk for spinal cord injuries.

Even the most cautious worker can suffer a spinal cord injury. Back braces and proper lifting techniques can only help so much. If an employer does not follow all safety regulations and maintain a safe workplace, workers may pay the price with painful, life-altering injuries.

What are some common causes of spinal cord injuries?

Spinal cord injuries such as slipped or herniated discs may be the result of lifting or carrying heavy objects, including people or equipment; repetitive motions – particularly turning and twisting while lifting or holding something heavy; and even sitting for extended periods of time like long-haul truckers.

Severe spinal cord injuries that may result in paralysis are often the result of trauma caused by on-the-job incidents such as falling off of scaffolding or other equipment, accidents involving vehicles or heavy machinery, or falling objects or materials.

What is a slipped or herniated disc?

The vertebrae, or bones of the spine, are separated by rubbery cushions called discs. According to the Mayo Clinic, a spinal disc has a “soft, jellylike center (nucleus) encased in a tougher, rubbery exterior (annulus).” A herniated disc, sometimes referred to as a slipped or ruptured disc, occurs when “some of the nucleus pushes out through a tear in the annulus.

When explaining bulging and herniated discs to patients, physicians often compare it with the squishing of a jelly doughnut. Think of the disc as a jelly doughnut. The doughnut’s jelly center is surrounded by a thick doughnut “shell,” much like a disc’s nucleus is surrounded by the annulus. If you press down on the doughnut, the jelly will push against the sides of the shell, causing them to bulge outward. Similarly, when a disc is compressed, the nucleus pushes against the annulus causing a bulging disc or disc protrusion. If the pressure on the jelly doughnut is strong or consistent enough, the jelly will come out of the doughnut. Likewise, excessive pressure on a spinal disc can cause some of the nucleus to push out through a tear in the annulus. This is a herniated disc but is also referred to at times as a ruptured or torn disc.

What are some symptoms of a herniated disc?

A herniated disc can occur on any part of the spine, although they often happen in the lower back. When it does occur, a herniated disc can irritate nearby nerves, causing pain, numbness or tingling, or weakness in an arm or leg. It is important to note, however, that some people do not experience any symptoms from a herniated disc.

How is a herniated disc treated?

Herniated discs can typically be treated with physical therapy, rest, and pain management medication. Alternative forms of treatment may include chiropractic manipulation or acupuncture. However, these alternative treatments may not be covered under certain workers compensation claims or insurance coverage.

According to the Mayo Clinic, surgery is usually not necessary to relieve the problem of a herniated disc. This is determined on a case-by-case basis and surgery may be necessary for some patients.

What about more severe spinal cord injuries?

As painful as a herniated disc may be, it is typically not the most severe spinal injury a person can sustain. A severe spinal cord injury may result in temporary or permanent paralysis. The location of the injury on the spinal cord will determine the extent of the paralysis:

  • Paraplegia – This type of paralysis affects all or part of a person’s trunk, legs, and pelvic organs. Their upper body, including their arms and hands, are unaffected.
  • Quadriplegia – Sometimes called tetraplegia, this refers to a paralysis that affects the arms, hands, trunk, legs, and pelvic organs.

What should I do if I suspect that I or someone else has a severe spinal injury?

Timing is crucial when it comes to spinal injuries. If someone suffers significant trauma to their head or neck, it is best to have them evaluated right away. According to the Mayo Clinic, it is not always immediately obvious that a serious spinal injury has occurred, which can lead to a more severe injury.

Serious spinal injuries can be difficult to diagnose without medical imaging and evaluation. Numbness or paralysis may be immediate, or it can come on gradually as a result of bleeding or swelling in or around the spinal cord.

If you or a loved one suffered a spinal cord injury on the job, you may be entitled workers’ compensation. It is imperative that you seek the advice of a workers’ compensation lawyer experienced in spinal cord injury cases. Based in Chattanooga, Wagner & Wagner Attorneys at Law provide compassionate, strategic legal counsel to workplace injury victims in Chattanooga and Cleveland, TN, as well as North Georgia and the surrounding counties. Call us at 423-756-7923 or complete our contact form.