It is not uncommon for people injured in car accidents to suffer from herniated discs, which are spinal injuries that can cause intense pain. Our office has handled many herniated disc cases, and here are some answers to questions that our clients ask us frequently.
Simply put, spinal discs are like little pillows that are set between each vertebra in your spine. These discs are very important because they help absorb shock as you move about in your everyday life. It might help to think about spinal discs like jelly doughnuts since they have a shell-type barrier that covers a liquid substance. Physical trauma, like the kind suffered during a car accident, can cause the disc to rupture and let the “jelly” ooze out of it. At this point, it is not uncommon for the disc to shift and hit a nerve in the spinal column. This is called a herniated disc, and the more pressure it puts on a spinal nerve, the more painful it is.
However, the pain you feel as a result of a herniated disc may not be located in the back—it can “radiate” to other parts of the body, depending on the particular disc that has been impacted. It is also common to have numbness running down the buttocks through the back of the thigh and into the foot when the damage is in the lower back.
When a nerve is pinched in such a way that it causes this kind of “radicular” pain, many patients feel as if bouts of pain are shooting through the body to one specific area. Depending on the location of the herniated disc in question, this pain can be located in the leg, the arm, or other places.
Unfortunately, emergency room doctors usually do not identify a patient’s herniated disc right after an accident. Because spinal discs cannot be seen on X-rays, you will need to have a CT scan or MRI before your doctor can diagnose you accurately. However, while doctors are able to tell if a patient has a herniated disc, they are not able to diagnose the pain level that a particular patient is suffering. Due to all of the factors involved in how people perceive pain, there is no exact relationship between how a herniated disc looks and how it feels.
Victims of car accidents who are suffering from herniated discs naturally want to know how much they can expect to receive in a settlement or court case. Like most aspects of injury cases, the exact amount depends on a variety of factors that can affect the strength of your claim.
If there is no question that the other driver was responsible for the accident, you do not have any pre-existing injury that could have caused the pain you are now feeling, and the other driver has decent insurance, then you can generally expect to receive a substantial settlement. From there, the exact amount depends on how much your pain is affecting your life. Unfortunately, some people with herniated discs suffer from constant pain with no end in sight—nothing works, from physical therapy to surgery, and they face a lifetime of chronic pain. For people in these circumstances, six-figure (and sometimes seven-figure) settlements are common.
Things become more complicated when the victim has a preexisting medical condition, as defense lawyers for insurance companies will try to say that conditions like spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis, and osteoarthritis are actually the cause of the victim’s pain. As a result, your lawyer will need to make a compelling case that your current symptoms are due to the injury itself, rather than these kinds of degenerative pre-existing conditions.
So, what happens if you had a preexisting condition like a herniated disc before the accident, but you didn’t have any symptoms until after the accident? If there was a pre-existing disc injury that was asymptomatic and it began to hurt after the crash then you will rely heavily on the “eggshell rule” jury charge. This is a rule in Athens Georgia that says that you must accept that the person you hit may be a weak or elderly person and that their spine may suffer injury more readily than the average person. If you do aggravate the injury, the at-fault driver is responsible.
The law in Georgia is clear on this, but juries can get confused unless the evidence is strong and clearly presented. So in order for a jury to make a substantial award to receive a fair settlement, your lawyer will need to present compelling evidence that your quality of life and pain level have become substantially worse after the accident.