The spinal cord is a structure that extends from the nape of the brain to the end of the spine. It is composed of white and grey matter that carries nerve impulses to and from the brain to other parts of the body. It is also the center for most involuntary reflexes. Vertebrae or rings of bones, which form the backbones, surround the spinal cord protecting it from harm.
Trauma or injury to the spinal cord can be devastating for the body. A spinal cord injury — damage to any portion of spinal cord or nerves at the end of spinal canal (cauda equina) — frequently causes permanent changes in sensation, strength and other body functions below the injury site.The spinal cord, in most people who undergo a traumatic spinal cord injury, does not heal completely .
Is it Possible to Heal a Spinal Cord Injury?
Traumatic complete spinal cord injuries are almost impossible to heal. That is because the damaged cells face anatomical, chemical, physiological, and immune system changes that prevent them from regenerating. Although there are no specific treatments available to heal traumatic spinal cord injuries, researchers have been trying to develop a treatment. Meanwhile, rehabilitation and physiotherapy have helped many people with a traumatic spinal cord injury lead a happy and independent life.
What are the Types of Spinal Cord Injuries?
Your ability to control the limbs following a spinal cord injury depends on two factors: the location of your spinal chord injury and the severity of the spinal cord injury.
The lower normal portion of your spinal cord is referred to as the neurological level of the injury.
There are mainly two types of spinal cord injury:
A complete spinal cord injury is characterized by a complete lack of sensory and motor function below the injury level.
When the trauma does not completely damage the spinal cord, and faint sensations can be felt below the area of injury, the damage is said to be incomplete. With regular exercise and treatment, it is possible for you to recover.
Further, when a spinal cord injury results in paralysis, it may be referred to as:
It is also known as quadriplegia. This condition results in the damage of arms, hands, legs, pelvic organs, and trunk.
This term refers to the complete paralysis of the pelvic organs, legs, and trunk.
What are the Symptoms of a Spinal Cord Injury?
An injury to the spinal cord may result in the following symptoms:
● Difficulty in walking.
● Loss of sensation.
● Loss of bladder and bowel control.
● Difficulty in breathing.
● Loss of movement in arms and legs.
● Stinging sensation or pain in the spinal cord.
● Unnatural positioning of the head.
● Hyperactive involuntary movement or spasms.
● Signs of shock.
What are the Necessary Steps to be Taken in a Suspected Spinal Cord Injury?
In case of a suspected injury, seek immediate medical help. Meanwhile, here are a few measures that need to be taken:
● An injured person must never be moved. Moving might result in permanent damage.
● Contact the nearest medical center.
● Restrict movement of the neck and back. Place heavy linen on both sides of the neck until medical help arrives.
● Provide primary first aid assistance. Check for any bleeding and try to remove any restrictive piece of clothing.
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When to See a Doctor in Case of a Spinal Cord Injury?
It is advisable to visit a doctor as soon as the first unusual signs and symptoms begin to occur. If left untreated at an early stage, the injury might worsen with time and even lead to complete or partial paralysis. In case of traumatic events, wherein you suspect the spinal cord to be injured, seek medical help immediately, and do not try to move the patient till medical help arrives.
What are the Causes of a Spinal Cord Injury?
Injuries to the spinal cord may be caused due to damages in the vertebrae, discs, ligaments, or the spinal cord itself. A sudden blow or physical assault may fracture, dislocate, or crush the vertebrae protecting the spinal cord resulting in a traumatic injury.
Further, the spinal cord may get damaged due to prolonged and untreated swelling, fluid accumulation, and bleeding in and around it. The spinal cord can also be damaged due to diseases like arthritis, infection on discs, cancer, and inflammation.
Given below are some of the most common causes of spinal cord injury:
Diseases like cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis, and inflammation can cause long term injury to the spinal cord.
● Accidents account for a significant number of cases of spinal cord injuries.
● Falls are the most common cause of spinal cord injury in adults over 65 years of age.
● Alcohol abuse may also play a role in spinal injury
● Gunshot wounds and acts of violence can also lead to injury
What are the Risk Factors Related to a Spinal Cord Injury?
Spinal cord injuries are not always limited to accidental trauma or external factors. Although it can happen to anyone, here are a few factors that may increase your risk of damaging the spinal cord.
● Gender plays a significant role in determining the risk of spinal cord injury. Studies have shown that men are more susceptible to damages related to the spinal cord than women.
● Falls are the highest contributors to spinal cord injuries in older age groups. Belonging to the age group of above 60 years raises the risk of damages caused to the spinal cord.
● A pre-existing bone or joint disorder like arthritis or osteoporosis raises the risk of spinal cord injuries of an individual.
Can a Spinal Cord Injury Cause Complications?
Spinal cord injuries may result in multiple complications and permanent locomotive disabilities. It changes the way your body functions. Psychological stress and depression are also common during the recovery process. Given below are seven complications that may arise due to spinal cord damage:
- Bowel control
Since spinal cord injuries affect the pelvic organs, one may experience a loss of control of the bowel and bladder.
- Loss of sensation on the skin
You may lose a part, or all of your skin sensations below the neurological level of your injury.Your skin, therefore, cannot send a message to the brain when it is injured by certain things like prolonged pressure, cold or heat.
This can make you more prone to pressure sores, but changing positions often — with help, if required — can help prevent these sores. You will learn proper skin care during rehabilitation, which can help you avoid these problems.
- Restricted respiratory function
Injuries to the spinal cord may result in restricted respiratory functions. Your breathing gets affected if the chest and abdominal muscles are affected. Coughing may get difficult as well.
Being bedridden for prolonged periods owing to restrictions in movement may lead to depression and anxiety. It is imperative to harbor a positive attitude during the recovery process.
- Muscle tone
During the recovery period, muscles in the body may experience uncontrolled tightening or excessive softness. Such muscle disorders are a common occurrence during the recovery period.
- Circulatory control
Blood circulatory systems may be affected due to a spinal cord injury. Problems like low blood pressure, swelling of valves, developing blood clots, etc. might arise.
- Pain and swelling
Experiencing pricking pain and swelling of hands and feet is common in those suffering from spinal cord injuries. Some people also experience muscle and joint pains. Nerve pain is also a common occurrence.
Diagnosis of Spinal Cord Injury
Trauma to the spine requires immediate medical attention and evaluation for the possibility of damages to the spinal cord. Accident victims must be taken to a doctor for a proper diagnosis. Due to the lack of visible signs, a spinal injury is not always obvious. Neglected medical help may result in a more severe injury. Numbness or paralysis may occur gradually or immediately if bleeding or inflammation continues unchecked.
If you have experienced a trauma to the neck, back, or head, the following tests might be administered:
● CT scans.
● MRI scans.
● Test of voluntary reflexes.
● Testing muscle strength and agility.
What is the Treatment for Spinal Cord Injuries?
Unfortunately, there is no definite treatment for injuries to the spinal cord. A combination of rehabilitation therapy, exercise, and medicine helps treat these kinds of injuries.
Prevention of Injuries to the Spinal Cord
The following preventive measures can help avoid injuries to the spinal cord:
Driving responsibly can help prevent accidents and, in turn, any trauma to the spinal cord. Following traffic rules, wearing seat belts, and driving safely are some primary preventive measures.
You should take adequate precautions when walking, running, and exercising. This may help reduce the occurrence of falls and injuries to the spinal cord. Wearing protective gear is highly recommended while playing sports.
Spinal cord injury affects you in a lot of ways. No doubt, it can immobilize you in more ways than one, but you will be surprised with all that a person can do. With a positive mindset and therapy/medication, you can pull yourself up from despair and inspire others around you.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
- Can someone with a spinal cord injury ever walk again?
It depends on the extent of damage to the spine. If it is not completely damaged, you can walk. A combination of exercise, medicine, and therapy may help you walk unaided. The most important part, however, is to have a positive attitude, communicating with loved ones, and entering rehabilitation programs.
- Does spinal cord injury have a definite cure?
Unfortunately, no. There is no sure and certain way to treat a spinal cord injury. Medication, restriction of movement, and physiotherapy have helped many people. Also, spinal cord injuries are highly complex and affect different individuals differently.
- How common are spinal cord injuries in children?
Spinal cord injuries are relatively low in children. Most spinal cord injuries in the case of children occur in the neck. Children mostly suffer from transient symptoms like paresthesias and weakness in case of such an injury. Further, in almost 25% of children suffering from spinal cord injuries, the first sign of neurological deficits is delayed by 30 minutes to 4 hours, thus, making it very difficult to diagnose immediately.