Spinal Cord Injuries and Workers Compensation

Ethel Gonzales

Back injuries are on of the most common injuries in Illinois work injury cases. This is an overview of spinal injuries.

Spinal Injuries

Some common forms of spinal injuries are those that relate to the spinal discs. Spinal discs are pads of cartilage that separate and cushion the spinal vertebrae. When the body moves, the spinal discs protect the vertebrate from shock. Over time, spinal discs can be hurt by injury, degeneration and disease.

One common spinal injury is known as a herniated disc, which can also be referred to as prolapsed, bulging, or ruptured. Herniated discs can cause pain, weakness and numbness in various areas of the body, including the lower back, legs and feet. A disc becomes herniated when the hardened outside layer tears, and leaves the softer inside material of the disc pushing out.

Diagnosing a Back Injury

Neurosurgeons and Orthopedic surgeons are the most appropriate doctors for diagnosing back injuries. The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission views diagnoses and treatment from neurosurgeons and orthopedic surgeons as more credible than diagnoses and treatment from chiropractors and internists.

Doctors are most likely to diagnose a back injury by first administering an objective examination before ordering expensive tests. The most critical factor for diagnosing an injury is oftentimes the patients’ own description of the pain. For instance, a herniated disc can be diagnosed when a patient mentions pain shooting down his or her leg. Many problems eventually require an MRI or CT scan because some back injuries don’t show up on a simple x-ray.

Causes of Back Injuries

Back injuries can arise from various activities. Usually herniated discs arise from heavy lifting, car accidents or other traumatic activity, but they have also been know to sometimes occur from simple activities such as sneezing.

Spinal disorders can arise from soft tissue injury, structural injury, and degenerative conditions. The development of spinal disorders can be influenced by injury, aging, general health, and lifestyle. In Illinois, workers are entitled to workers compensation benefits when a pre-existing condition is aggravated by work activities.

Treatment for Back Injuries

Once a back injury is diagnosed, there are usually treatment involves either physical medication with pain medications or surgery.

1. Physical therapy and pain medications

Physical therapy strengthens the back and prepares it for increased activity. Usually physical therapists design exercises to simulate work activity if a back injury is preventing a patient from working. In addition to physical therapy, pain medication can also assist patients regain the ability to participate in normal activities. Medications vary in strength depending on the severity of the injury. Usually, if pain medication doesn’t provide relief, doctors consider surgery.

2. Surgery

The three basic types of back surgery are:

o Fusion: Spinal fusion involves the permanent connection of two or more spinal vertebrae. In order to complete this surgery, the surgeon needs small pieces of extra bone to fill spaces between the vertebrae. Extra bone can either come from a bone bank or from a patient’s own body. When preformed after other surgeries, fusions are usually unsuccessful.

o Laminotomy or laminectomy: The lamina is the back part of the bone over the spinal canal, and both of these surgeries involve removing all or part of it. A laminectomy involves a complete removal of the lamina. The laminotomy only involves the removal of a portion of the lamina to relieve pressure or allow the surgeon to access a disc that is pressing on a nerve.

o Diskectomy: To relieve pressure on a nerve, this procedure consists of removal of a portion of the disc.

The following two surgeries are gaining popularity because they are more modern and less invasive:

o Vertebroplasty: This procedure involves the use of bone cement. The cement is injected into fractured or collapsed vertebrae. The fracture stabilizes and pain is relieved as soon as the cement hardens.

o Kyphoplasty: This is similar to a vertebroplasty in that it involves the use of bone cement to stabilize vertebrae. The difference is that it involves use of a balloon-like instrument to expand the compressed vertebra while injecting bone cement.


When a spinal cord is severed, or if nervous tissue inside the spinal cord is damaged, paraplegia results. Paraplegia is the paralysis of the entire lower body. Paraplegia affects the legs and usually any internal organs below the waist. Such damage to the nervous tissue can result when the spinal cord is pressed up against by a broken vertebrae.


When an injury severs the spinal cord or damages nervous tissue inside the cord, quadriplegia may result. Like paraplegia, quadriplegia is a paralysis of the body, but it affects the arms as well as the legs. The distinguishing factor that causes quadriplegia as opposed to paraplegia is that the injury occurs to the upper part of the spinal cord, inside the neck. When an injury occurs in the upper end of the spinal cord, the spinal cord is unable to send messages to any part of the body below the injury.

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