Spinal Cord Injuries

If you’ve experienced significant, permanent pain, time away from work, loss of your job, permanent work restrictions, surgery, or other damages due to an accident at work resulting in an injury to your spinal cord, you may be entitled to compensation. 

What are common causes of spinal cord injury at work?

The spinal cord is the critical link between the brain and the rest of your nervous system. Damage to the spine can result in loss of sensation throughout the body, making controlled motor function impossible. There are 5 main sections of the spine: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral, and coccygeal. Damage to the cervical spine (neck area) can paralyze your arms and legs (quadriplegia) while damage to the thoracic and lumbar spine (upper and lower back) can paralyze just the legs (paraplegia). High-risk jobs can result in accidents that cause spinal damage due to poor safety or lack of proper training. Injuries can be mild (requiring pain or anti-inflammatory medication) or major (requiring surgery and causing permanent disability). The most common causes of these injuries at work are due to the operation of heavy machines, unsafe lifting of heavy objects, automobile accidents, or falls.

Accidental falls or slips at work are some of the most common causes of spinal damage such as nerve compression or burst fractures.

  • Nerve compression can occur in the spine after extended overuse of certain muscles. resulting in the breakdown of the blood-nerve barrier. When this barrier breaks, fluid can flood the nerve causing swelling, inflammation, discomfort, and permanent nerve damage. Like most neck pain, if the pressure is released, the nerve can heal even if the damage was originally severe. But nerve compression can cause permanent damage in cases where there is noticeable loss of movement or sensation. Surgery may even be required for recovery. Assuming the nerve compression is the result of overextension at work, you may be entitled to receive payment.
  • A compression fracture can occur when a spinal vertebra is compressed after a fall or impact, and is now 15%-20% shorter than it should be. A compression fracture is usually limited to the front of the vertebral column and is thus considered a more stable fracture, rarely causing any severe nerve or spinal cord damage.
  • Burst fractures occur when one (or more) of the vertebrae in the spine snap (often as a result of high impact to the spine as is the case with high speed automobile accidents or a severe fall at work), and can result in progressive deformity or the potential for nerve damage. Most often burst fractures are treated with braces, a body cast, or surgery, and require immediate medical attention. Burst fractures can have long lasting effects, often resulting in thoracic kyphosis, or the exaggeration of the natural spine curve (resulting in a back hump). When mild, this condition can often go untreated, however more severe cases marked by mild to severe back pain, loss of height, difficulty standing upright, and fatigue may require further surgery.

Besides damage to the vertebra, damage to the rubbery cushions between the vertebrae—known as discs—can also occur. A herniated disc can occur when the inner, jelly like center of the disc is pushed through the external casing, irritating nearby nerves and causing pain, numbness or weakness in an arm or leg. Many herniated discs go undetected and don’t have any noticeable symptoms, but more severe cases can require surgery, bed rest, and time off work. Some herniated discs develop with age, but unsafe lifting of heavy objects (where the back muscles are used instead of the leg muscles) can damage the discs as well. Workers at jobs where repetitive lifting, pulling, pushing, bending sideways, and twisting are common are at a much higher risk for a herniated disc. It’s rare, but even a sudden fall or blow can herniate a disc.

Because of an accident at work, I’ve become a paraplegic/tetraplegic/quadriplegic:

Sometimes, workers break their necks or spines at work. If the nerves of the spinal cord are also injured, it can cause permanent immobility of the limbs (arms and/or legs). Patients may need:

  • Surgery
  • Blood testing
  • CT scans, MRIs, or Myelography
  • Mobility devices
  • Home renovations for accessibility
  • Therapy or rehabilitation

These cases of severe spinal damage can be extremely expensive, and the injured may lose the ability to work. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination by employers for individuals with spine injuries, but finding a job can still be difficult.

Paralysis can occur due to an inherited condition, but between 70 and 80% of cases are caused by traumatic injury. At the top of the list is severe, high-speed, automobile accidents, followed by sports accidents, suicide attempts, and gunshot and stabbing injuries. Most of the above can occur at work, however the most common causes of spinal injuries at work are falls from heights, blast injuries, electric shock injuries, and automobile accidents in the case of truckers.

What am I entitled to if I’ve become paraplegic/tetraplegic/quadriplegic?

The following expenses can be covered by Illinois workers’ compensation benefits:

  • Home care services, including paid housekeeping (cleaning, washing clothes, cooking, etc.)
  • Medical and nursing treatment
  • Handicap accessible renovation
    • In the case of Zephyr v. Industrial Commission, remodeling, including doorway expansion, ramps, and other changes were found to be covered by workers’ compensation for wheelchair accessibility. In the case of Jesse Bond v. F & E Erection Company, the employee was awarded funds for a new van lift with hand controls and a seat base.

Beyond these house expenses, if you have been injured at work you are likely entitled to full medical coverage. This means any medical bills resulting from a work accident, any surgery, medical examinations, or rehabilitation may be compensable. Further, if you are left unable to work from a spinal injury, you may be entitled to weekly disability payments to compensate for the loss of wages.

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