In car accidents, especially rear-end collisions, victims often sustain injuries to the neck and back. A facet joint injury is one such example. The impact of the crash, jarring movements the body undergoes in the collision, or compression of the body inside the car can all cause damage to one or more of the many facet joints along the spine, which can lead to long-term pain and immobility.
It important to seek a medical evaluation after a crash, even if you are asymptomatic or your pain is only slight, because there could be underlying injuries that have not fully manifested yet. Early diagnosis and treatment almost always improves outcomes.
What are facet joints and what is their purpose?
The spine comprises 24 vertebrae that provide the back with support. Two facet joints, the only true joints in the spine, are located between each pair of vertebrae. They are sliding joints that control movement and support the weight between each individual vertebra. Without facet joints, the spine would bend too far and risk breaking.
There is a thin layer of cartilage between each facet joint, allowing it the ability to slide. Actually, these joints provide for numerous types of movement; they allow the body to twist, flex, and extend our cervical and lumbar spine.
There are several types of facet joint injuries that can result from car accidents.
- Facet joint fractures
- Torn cartilage between the joints
- An general inflammatory response which a cyclical pain-inflammation response
- Facet joint dislocation (separation of the joints)
What are some symptoms of a facet joint injury?
It is not uncommon for people to feel varying degrees of general back and neck pain and soreness after a collision. Usually it is temporary and subsides in a couple of days. However, if the pain lingers or worsens, it may be indicative of more serious damage, such as to the facet joints.
The pain and other symptoms of facet joint injuries will be more prominent around the joint that sustained the brunt of the damage. Below are some of the symptoms that may be present.
- Back and neck muscle spasms
- Radiating pain from the back to the buttocks and legs
- Shoulder and upper back pain
- Headaches and neck pain
- Pain or tenderness in the lower back
- Pain that increases with bending, twisting, or stretching motion
- A dull or deep aching pain in the back of the thighs
- Difficulty standing up straight
- Difficulty standing from a sitting position
- Difficulty turning or tilting your head
How do doctors diagnose facet joint injuries?
The symptoms of facet joint injuries mimic those of other back injuries, such as herniated discs. When facet joint inflammation is at its worst, the pain and decreased functional capacity the victim feels are so similar to what patients feel when they have sustained disc injuries that initial diagnosis can be tricky. Doctors usually need to perform special tests to pinpoint and diagnose the injury.
General practitioners will usually refer patients to a specialist if they suspect a serious spine injury. Below are the four types of evaluation tools that doctors use to diagnose a facet joint injury.
- CT scans
- Facet joint injections
A facet joint injection is probably the most accurate way to diagnose a facet joint injury. To perform the diagnostic procedure, the doctor will inject a local anesthetic and cortisone into the facet joints that are suspected of causing your pain. If, during this injection, the pain lessens as a result of the injection, it likely means a facet joint injury has been identified. As an added advantage, the cortisone may reduce swelling and inflammation, which could, in turn, bring longer-term pain relief.
What treatment options are available for facet joint injuries?
Facet joint injuries can be very painful, but they typically resolve using only minimal treatments. Treatment for a facet joint injury can be successful if patients continue it on a long-term basis. Approaches for treating a facet joint injury include the following.
- Exercise (under the instruction of a physical therapist or other qualified healthcare provider)
- Avoiding movements that aggravate the symptoms
- Practicing good posture
- Applying heat wraps or cold pack applications
- Anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen
- Chiropractic treatments
- Facet block cortisone injections (These are meant to provide pain relief, as well as to allow for physical therapy to be done with less stress, pain, and restrictions on range of motion. Generally, a doctor will give a maximum of three injections over a six-month period, but not every facet joint injury requires all three injections.)
- Surgery (Usually only required in very severe cases, doctors may order surgery to remove bone spurs or to deaden the nerves that carry signals to and from the facet joint.)
Can I receive compensation for my car accident-related back injuries?
If you sustained facet joint and/or other injuries in a car accident, there is a good chance that you can recover some – if not all – of your damages. This includes your medical bills, lost wages, disability, and pain and suffering.
The first step to financial recovery is to speak with a local car accident attorney about your accident to discern exactly what your legal options are. Then, your attorney will help you compile the necessary evidence, and file your claim or lawsuit, and help you maximize your chances of full and fair compensation.
For a free legal consult with a personal injury lawyer in Pennsylvania that handles all types of back and neck injury cases include facet joint injuries, contact Cordisco & Saile LLC today at 215-642-2335. You can also download a free copy of our book, Don’t Crash Again! A Car Accident Victim’s Guide to Maximizing Recovery, for no-nonsense advice about getting the most out of your claim. This way, you can ensure you get the funds you need and deserve while you are healing.