Spinal Cord Injuries and Workers Compensation

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

spinal cord injuries

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

A common spinal injury is known as a herniated disc, which may also be called a prolapse, bulge, or rupture. Herniated discs can cause pain, weakness, and numbness in various areas of the body, including the lower back, legs, and feet. A disc herniates when the hardened outer layer ruptures, allowing the softer inner material of the disc to fall out.

Diagnosing a back injury

Neurosurgeons and orthopedic surgeons are the doctors of choice for diagnosing back injuries. The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission considers the diagnoses and treatments of neurosurgeons and orthopedic surgeons to be more credible than the diagnoses and treatments of chiropractors and internists.

Doctors are more likely to diagnose a back injury by first administering an objective exam before ordering expensive tests. The most critical factor in diagnosing an injury is often the patient’s own description of the pain. For example, a herniated disc can be diagnosed when a patient mentions shooting pain in the leg. Many problems ultimately 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. Herniated discs usually arise from heavy lifting, car accidents, or other traumatic activity, but they have also been known to sometimes occur from simple activities such as sneezing.

Spinal disorders can arise from soft tissue injuries, structural injuries, 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, treatment usually consists of physical medication with pain relievers or surgery.

1. Physiotherapy and painkillers

Physical therapy strengthens the back and prepares it for more activity. Physical therapists typically design exercises to simulate work activity if a back injury prevents the patient from working. In addition to physical therapy, pain relievers can also help patients regain the ability to participate in normal activities. Medications vary in potency depending on the severity of the injury. Usually, if pain medications don’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. To complete this surgery, the surgeon needs small pieces of extra bone to fill the spaces between the vertebrae. The additional bone can come from a bone bank or from the patient’s own body. When done after other surgeries, fusions are usually unsuccessful.

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

o Discectomy: To relieve pressure on a nerve, this procedure involves removing a portion of the disc.

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

o Vertebroplasty: This procedure involves the use of bone cement. The cement is injected into the fractured or collapsed vertebrae. The fracture is stabilized and the 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 the vertebrae. The difference is that it involves the use of a balloon-like instrument to expand the compressed vertebra while injecting bone cement.


When a spinal cord is severed, or if nerve tissue within the spinal cord is damaged, paraplegia occurs. Paraplegia is paralysis of the entire lower body. Paraplegia affects the legs and usually any internal organ below the waist. Such damage to nerve tissue can result when a broken vertebra presses on the spinal cord.


When an injury severs the spinal cord or damages nerve tissue within the cord, quadriplegia can occur. Like paraplegia, quadriplegia is a paralysis of the body, but it affects both the arms and the legs. The distinguishing factor that causes quadriplegia as opposed to paraplegia is that the injury occurs at the top of the spinal cord, within the neck. When an injury occurs at the upper end of the spinal cord, the spinal cord cannot send messages to any part of the body below the injury.

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