Neck injuries affect the lives of hundreds of injured workers across Virginia. They can be very serious and can often be difficult to diagnose without proper diagnostic testing. If you have been diagnosed with any of the following conditions by your workers’ compensation doctor, you may want to look over this information and make sure you fully understand your diagnosis. If you are unsure of your diagnosis or if you have questions about your injury you need to make sure you discuss these issues with your doctor right away.
Understanding Neck Injury
By Anne Asher, About.com Guide
Neck Injuries That May Affect Nerves and/or the Spinal Cord
Certain neck injuries may also do damage to the nervous system by irritating nerve roots or affecting the spinal cord. Others may pinch or stretch a nerve. Generally, neck injuries that affect the nervous system are more complicated to diagnose, treat, and cope with than soft tissue trauma or mild to moderate joint injury. For one thing, diagnosing nerve pain is not always straightforward. An injury to the spinal cord often results in life long disability, paralysis, or even death. Below are common neck injuries that may include damage to one or more parts of the nervous system.
Whiplash-Whiplash Associated Disorders-WAD
Whiplash is a set of symptoms following an injury in which the head is thrown first into hyperextension and then quickly forward. It’s most often due to car accidents but may be caused by sports injuries, falls, or trauma. Like a crick, WAD is not a medical diagnosis. It’s an event that may result in neck strain or sprain. Whiplash may also damage joints or discs, which in turn may irritate nerve roots or possibly the spinal cord. Depending on the injury, symptoms can include pain, weakness/numbness/tingling down the arm, stiffness, dizziness, or disturbed sleep. Symptoms may be delayed a day or two following the injury. Research has not yet identified the most appropriate treatments for WAD but medication and wearing a collar are common.
Herniated disc occurs when the soft substance on the inside of the disc (nucleus pulposis) is pushed out. Should this substance land on a nerve root, which it often does, you’ll likely feel pain and have symptoms such as weakness, numbness and/or pins and needles down your arm. Tears in the tough outer fibers of the disc may lead to a herniation. These tears may be brought on by either repeated or a sudden, forceful stress to the joint. For example, lifting a heavy load with a twisted spine may cause a disc to herniate. Treatment generally starts with medication and physical therapy, but may proceed to surgery as needed.
Stingers and Burners
Stingers and burners (named for the way they feel) are temporary injuries to the nerve root or brachial plexus. They occur most often in football players (especially tacklers) and other contact sport athletes. They may be caused either by an abrupt tilt of the head or when the head and shoulder are forced in opposite directions at the same time. Symptoms include burning, stinging, numbness/weakness, or an electrical sensation down one arm. You may feel a warm sensation along with the other symptoms. If a stinger or burner is severe or lasts longer than a few minutes, see a doctor. If you are an athlete with stenosis, your risk is higher and your doctor may suggest that you retire from your sport to avoid a catastrophic neck injury.
A neck fracture is a break in a cervical bone. It may be caused by trauma, a fall, or degenerative changes in the spine. The angle of force hitting the neck and the head’s position at impact often determine the type and severity of the break. Football players who block with their head are at high risk. Elderly people with osteoporosis are particularly at risk for neck fractures because their bones are very fragile. The most serious neck fractures are generally accompanied by a dislocation (see below). Treatment depends on a lot of things including your age, other medical conditions, and extent of damage to your spine. If a fracture destabilizes your neck, you may need to wear a halo brace. Prevention is the best treatment strategy.
Dislocation occurs when a neck bone moves out of its normal position, creating spinal instability. Either an injury or degenerative changes disrupt the ligaments that hold the vertebra in place, causing it to separate from the bone below. When brought on by trauma, a dislocation may be accompanied by a fracture. In the most severe dislocation, the bone is fully displaced forward (called jumping) and it locks in this position. The ligaments rupture completely. Dislocations may damage the spinal cord and/or require surgery. Less severe forms occur when the bone does not move all the way out or when only one side fully displaces. Mild dislocations may go back in place on their own and the soft tissue treated by wearing a collar.
Spinal Cord Injury
A spinal cord injury occurs when a fracture, dislocation or, other neck injury damages the spinal cord. If the spinal cord is damaged at the 3rd cervical vertebra or above, the person may die or need a respirator to live. People living with SCI often endure a lifelong disability with complete or incomplete paralysis below the level of injury. The timeliness of emergency care and the type of medical treatment given immediately after the injury are especially critical to survival and subsequent quality of life. If someone in your environment has a traumatic incident, you should assume they have a serious or even life threatening neck injury and follow Red Cross guidelines.