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Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord injury is a serious condition in which there is damage to any part of the spinal cord or the nerves at the end of the spinal canal. Depending on the severity of damage, a spinal cord injury can cause permanent issues with muscle strength, sensation, and bodily functions below the damaged area.

Spinal cord injuries are most often associated with a sudden, traumatic blow to the spine, such as in a serious car accident. The vertebrae can be fractured, dislocated, crushed, or compressed by the blow. The spinal cord can also be severed. Bleeding, swelling, inflammation, and fluid accumulation around the spinal cord in the days following the injury can further the damage.

There are instances of nontraumatic spinal cord injury, which can be caused by disc degeneration, arthritis, infection, inflammation, or cancer.

Spinal cord injury can lead to the inability to control the limbs below the point of damage. This point is referred to as the neurological level of the injury. The loss of sensation in the limbs depends in part upon the location of the injury on the spinal cord.

Loss of sensation also depends on the severity of the injury, which is referred to as its “completeness,” with the severity of the injury classified as complete or incomplete. If all sensation and ability to control movement is lost below the injury, this is classified as complete. If some sensory and motor function is still present below the injury location, it’s classified as incomplete.

Paralysis that has occurred from spinal cord injury may be classified as paraplegia or tetraplegia, which is more commonly known as quadriplegia. Paraplegia means all or part of the trunk, legs, and pelvic organs have lost sensation and function. Tetraplegia means the arms, hands, trunk, legs, and pelvic organs have lost sensation and motor function below the injury.

Signs and Symptoms

Any time a significant trauma to the head, neck, or back has occurred, immediate medical evaluation for the possibility of a spinal cord injury is needed. A spinal cord injury may not be immediately identified or obvious, so it’s always safest to assume the trauma victim has a spinal injury until they have been evaluated. Treatment should be sought urgently since extending the time between injury and treatment can increase the severity of the injury and any permanent impairment.

Emergency signs that indicate a spinal cord injury may have occurred include:

  • Numbness, tingling, or loss of sensation in the hands, fingers, feet, or toes
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Muscle spasms or exaggerated reflexes
  • Extreme pain or pressure in the back, neck, or head
  • Difficulty walking or balancing
  • Impaired breathing
  • The neck or back appearing twisted or out of place

Signs and symptoms that may develop after the immediate injury include:

  • Loss of movement below the injury
  • Difficulty or the inability to feel heat, cold, and touch
  • Changes in sexual function
  • Pain or intense tingling in the spinal region due to nerve fiber damage
  • Difficulty breathing, coughing, or clearing the throat

Common Causes

Most spinal cord injuries in the United States occur due to the following:

  • Traffic accidents involving vehicles and motorcycles account for almost half of all spinal cord injuries.
  • Falls account for more than 15% of spinal cord injuries, and most injuries after age 65 are caused by falls.
  • Approximately 12% of spinal cord injuries are caused by violent trauma, such as gunshot and knife wounds.
  • Athletic injuries caused by impact during contact sports and diving account for about 10% of spinal cord injuries.
  • Conditions including cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis, and spinal cord inflammation can also lead to spinal cord injuries.

Emergency Measures

If you suspect that someone has a spinal cord injury:

  • Do not attempt to move the injured person.
  • Call 911.
  • Keep the injured person as still as possible by placing heavy towels or something similar on both sides of the neck or hold their head and neck still until medical assistance arrives.
  • Attempt to control any bleeding if doing so is possible without moving the head or neck.

A spinal cord injury can result in a total life alteration and can affect an injured person mentally, emotionally, and socially, in addition to physically. While there is no treatment to completely repair spinal cord injuries, advances are being made. Currently, facilities such as the Kelsey-Seybold Spine Center in Houston and its staff of spine specialists can help people with spinal cord injuries lead productive, independent lives with available treatments and rehabilitation.

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