Spinal Cord Injury: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Overview

A spinal cord injury (SCI) is damage to any part of the spinal cord, which often causes temporary or permanent changes in its function. A spinal cord injury usually begins with a sudden, traumatic blow to the spine that fractures or dislocates the vertebrae.

Generally, the spinal cord, which is the major bundle of nerves carrying impulses from the brain to the rest of the body, is very sensitive to injury. However, the spinal cord is unable to repair itself if it is damaged. If you have a spinal cord injury, every aspect of your life may be affected. You will feel the effects of your injury mentally, emotionally and socially.

There are approximately 12,000 cases of spinal cord injury each year in the United States. It is most common in white males.

Causes

The most common cause of spinal cord injury is trauma, which may stem form car accidents, falls, shootings or knife wounds, or sports injuries. Nearly half of the spinal cord injuries are caused by motor vehicle accidents.

The spine can be weak due to other conditions, such as arthritis, cancer, inflammation, infections or disc degeneration of the spine, which will also cause spinal cord injury.

Symptoms

Symptoms of a spinal cord injury vary depending on the location and severity of the injury.

If an injury occurs in the upper portion of the spinal cord in the neck, it will cause quadriplegia-paralysis of both arms and both legs. If the injury to the spinal cord occurs in the lower back, it can cause paraplegia-paralysis of legs only.

There are two kinds of spinal cord injury – complete injury and incomplete injury. In a complete injury, a person loses all ability to feel and involuntarily moves below the level of the injury. In an incomplete injury, there is still some functioning below the level of the injury.

Spinal cord injury of any kind may result in one or more of the following signs and symptoms:

  • Loss of mobility
  • Loss or altered sensation, including the ability to feel heat, cold and touch
  • Lack of bowel or bladder control
  • Exaggerated reflex activities or muscle spasms
  • Changes in sexual function, such as sexual sensitivity and fertility
  • Pain or an intense stinging sensation
  • Difficulty breathing and coughing
  • Digestive problems

Diagnosis

Spinal cord injury is not always immediately recognizable. People who are suspected of having the condition should resort to doctors to prevent further injury. To diagnose a spinal cord injury, doctors will first get to know the patient’s medical history, conduct a physical examination and perform some imaging tests. The common diagnostic tests include:

  • A CT scan. It uses a combination of X-rays and computers to form a series of cross-sectional images that may show the location and extent of the damage and reveal the problems.
  • An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan. It takes a picture of the injured area by using a strong magnetic field and radio waves. A computer creates an image of the spine to reveal herniated disks and other abnormalities.
  • A myelogram. This is an X-ray of the spine taken after a dye is injected.
  • Somatosensory Evoked Potential (SSEP) testing or magnetic stimulation. Conducting these tests can show if nerve signals can pass through the spinal cord.
  • Spine X-rays. It may show fracture or damage to the bones of the spine.

Treatment

There’s no cure to reverse the damage to the spinal cord. However, prostheses and medications may promote nerve cell regeneration or improve the function of the remaining nerves after a spinal cord injury. At the same time, spinal cord injury treatment focuses on preventing further injury and empowering people with a spinal cord injury to return to an active and productive life. About one-third of people who have an injury to the neck area will need help with breathing and require respiratory support.

Recovery from a spinal cord injury requires long-term hospitalization and rehabilitation. Electrical stimulation of nerves by neural prosthetic devices may restore specific functions, including bladder, breathing, coughing, and arm or leg movements. But whether doctors should use these devices depends on the level and type of the spinal cord injury.


Keywords: spinal cord injury.

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* The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.