Degenerative disc disease is a back condition where the discs in the spine deteriorate. 4 things to know about workers’ compensation settlements for these injuries are:
- it can be difficult to prove that your condition is work-related,
- sudden-onset injuries can reveal the disease,
- the condition is very debilitating, and
- settlement amounts can vary substantially.
1. Proving that degenerative disc disease is work-related is difficult
One of the most challenging things about workers’ compensation claims involving degenerative disc disease is proving that the condition was work-related.
Degenerative disc disease is a gradual-onset injury. It happens over a long period of time. It is also a natural part of aging, though physically-demanding work can speed up the deterioration. Additionally, sudden back trauma can trigger symptoms in existing degenerative disc disease. This can make it seem like your injuries are far more excessive than expected. This can lead to claims that you are faking your injuries. It also frequently leads to claims that your injury was preexisting and should not be covered by workers’ comp.
For example: Clark works in a warehouse. He has degenerative disc disease but does not know it because he has not had any symptoms or pain. One day on the job he trips and falls and hurts his back. Because of his degenerative disc disease, the minor injury leads to a compressed nerve in his spinal cord, causing severe pain. When he files for workers’ comp, his claim is denied. The insurance company says that it is for a preexisting injury and there is no proof that it happened on the worksite.
Generally, workers’ comp covers preexisting injuries that were aggravated in the workplace. However, different states have different rules. It is not uncommon for workers’ comp insurance companies to deny claims based on the symptoms of degenerative disc disease.
2. Sudden workplace injuries can aggravate it
While degenerative disc disease occurs naturally from the wear and tear that your back goes through, a sudden injury can make it much worse. The injury does not need to be a serious one. In many cases, minor back injuries create debilitating symptoms when coupled with existing degenerative disc disease.
Some examples of back injuries that aggravate degenerative disc disease are:
- muscle strains or tears in the back or neck,
- bruised or fractured ribs, or
- injuries to the spinal discs, like a herniated or bulging disc.
These injuries can happen in a wide variety of ways in the workplace. Some common scenarios include:
- a car accident or motor vehicle accident,
- slipping and falling at work,
- lifting a heavy object in an awkward way,
- moving in a sudden or strange way, like twisting to catch something that is falling or turning to keep from falling over, and
- bending over to pick something up.
This can create problems when filing for workers’ compensation.
In many incidents, the pain that you feel far exceeds what one might expect from your workplace injury. This can make it seem like you are exaggerating your injuries. Your employer and its workers’ comp insurer may claim that you are faking. They may try to deny your workers’ compensation claim.
Even after it becomes clear that your workplace injury is more severe than it seemed because it aggravated your degenerative disc disease, it can still be difficult to recover the compensation that you deserve. The insurance company will likely try to not pay benefits by claiming it was a preexisting condition, not a workplace injury.
3. Degenerative disc disease can be debilitating
While degenerative disc disease is often asymptomatic, when there are symptoms they can be very severe. Those symptoms often appear after a back injury aggravates the underlying condition. The symptoms depend on the nature of the injury. However, they generally involve:
- significant pain in the spinal cord,
- stiffness or reduced mobility, and/or
- other sensory effects, like tingling.
These are often the result of nerve compression or impingement in the spinal cord. The severity of the pain can vary from minor to disabling.
In the worst cases of degenerative disc disease, victims are unable to work anymore because of back or neck pain.
4. Workers’ compensation settlements vary wildly
Because of the wide range of symptoms and disabilities, as well as the difficulty in overcoming claims that the injury is not covered by workers’ comp, settlements vary wildly. Some lead to settlements that include over $100,000 for permanent disability benefits. Others settle for very little.
By establishing an attorney-client relationship and getting the legal advice and representation of an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer, you can maximize your potential workers’ comp settlement amount.
What is degenerative disc disease?
Degenerative disc disease is the slow degradation of the muscles between the vertebrae in your spinal cord. These muscles are called discs. They serve numerous purposes. They:
- provide flexibility in the spine,
- cushion the vertebrae bones from one another, and
- protect the nerve roots within the spinal cord.
These discs deteriorate over time. This is a normal part of aging. However, trauma to the spinal cord can speed up the degenerative process. Trauma can also exacerbate any deterioration that has already occurred. Existing deterioration can also make trauma more severe than it would have been, had the discs been healthy.
Degenerative disc disease does not always come with any symptoms. Many people have minor degenerative disc disease without knowing it. When there are symptoms, they are generally:
- back pain, particularly in the lower back,
- neck pain,
- pain in the upper legs or arms,
- reduced range of motion in the arms or legs,
- loss of sense of touch,
- tingling feelings, or
- muscle spasms.
In many cases, these symptoms appear after a traumatic experience that makes existing degenerative disc disease much worse. In these instances, the disease was present but was asymptomatic. The trauma to the spinal cord altered the weakened disc muscles in a way that produced the symptoms. Spinal trauma often does this by causing another serious back injury, like a:
- herniated disc,
- bulging disc,
- slipped disc,
- ruptured disc,
- annular tear, or
- nerve impingement or compression.
This new injury unleashes the symptoms of degenerative disc disease. They are most often felt in the:
- cervical region of the neck, or
- lumbar region of the lower back.
What causes it?
Degenerative disc disease is caused by age. It happens naturally over time. Nearly everyone has degenerative disc disease to at least a minimal extent in their spinal cords. The normal wear and tear of daily life eventually compromise the muscles between your spinal vertebrae.
However, some occupations require the kinds of physical movements that make degenerative disc disease worse. People who work these jobs are more likely to have the disease or to have it in more advanced stages.
What kinds of jobs can aggravate degenerative disc disease?
While degenerative disc disease is a natural part of aging, certain kinds of jobs can aggravate it. These are generally manual labor jobs that require lots of:
- heavy lifting, and
- twisting or turning your body.
Some of the most common occupations that aggravate degenerative disc disease are:
- construction jobs,
- janitorial work,
- assembly line jobs,
- loading and unloading trucks,
- warehouse work,
- truck driving, and
- grounds keeping and landscaping.
However, even sedentary jobs can exacerbate degenerative disc disease. Because the disease is a natural part of aging, anyone can have it. People who do not normally engage in physically-demanding work do not have the strength or muscles to handle it when they do engage in it. If circumstances require them to do something physical on the job, their lack of exercise can increase their chances of getting hurt. This can make their existing degenerative disc disease much worse.
Is the disease related to a herniated disc?
Degenerative disc disease is a different medical condition than a herniated disc. However, the conditions are related: Degenerative disc disease increases the risk of developing a herniated disc, while a herniated disc can aggravate degenerative disc disease.
While degenerative disc disease is the deterioration of the discs in your spine, a herniated disc is when the soft inside of a disc protrudes through the disc’s harder casing. This protrusion can impinge nerve endings in the spinal cord, causing severe pain and debilitation. It can also speed up the degeneration of the affected spinal discs.
What benefits does workers’ comp provide?
Every state has its own workers’ compensation law. However, these laws generally provide 2 types of workers’ compensation benefits:
- disability benefits that cover a portion of the wages you have lost due to the workplace injury, and
- medical care.
After a workplace injury, your medical expenses are covered by workers’ comp. You should be reimbursed for any payments that you make out of your own pocket.
Additionally, you are entitled to a portion of the wages that you lose while you are unable to work due to the injury. These are paid through disability benefits. Generally, state workers’ compensation laws provide 66 percent, or two-thirds, of your lost wages.1 While you are recovering, these are temporary disability payments. Eventually, you will reach a state of maximum medical improvement (MMI), where further medical treatment will not help you get better. A disability rating will be made for your impairment. This is used to calculate your permanent disability benefits.
Note that these benefits are different from what is available in a personal injury case. In workers’ comp claims you cannot recover financial compensation for your:
- physical pain,
- mental suffering,
- emotional anguish,
- loss of life’s enjoyments, or
- family’s loss of consortium.
You can invoke your rights to compensation with the help of a personal injury lawyer from a reputable law firm who has experience handling workplace accidents.
How do workers’ comp claims settle?
Generally, workers’ comp cases settle after the injured worker reaches MMI. They can settle in 1 of 2 ways:
- compromise and release, or
- stipulation and award.
Most settle as a compromise and release. These pay a single lump sum for:
- any future medical care you are likely to need, like physical therapy, and
- future disability benefits.
For work-related injuries involving degenerative disc disease, these settlements can be substantial if the symptoms are severe and debilitating. If your injuries are keeping you out of work, you deserve higher workers’ comp benefits.
Once a compromise and release is agreed to, it ends your case. If the lump sum payment proves to be inadequate, there is little that you can do to fix it.
Occasionally, a workers’ comp case will settle as a stipulation and award. In these settlements, the workers’ compensation insurance company agrees to continue to pay for your medical bills as they arise. It also stipulates to an amount and duration for ongoing disability payments.
- See, e.g., California Labor Code 4653 LAB and Missouri Statute 287.170.