Spinal Cord Injury: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment
Spinal cord injury is a serious condition that may cause permanent changes to your daily life. If you have ever heard of or experience a spinal cord injury yourself, you should be aware of the mental and social consequences it leaves on you. Up to now, researchers have been conducting studies to find out a complete cure for the condition.
What is Spinal Cord Injury?
Spinal cord injury is damage to the spinal cord or nerves at the end of the spinal canal. The condition may result from injury to the cord itself, or from diseases of the nearby bones, tissues, and blood vessels. This is a serious injury that affects all of your daily activities. Spinal cord injuries can cause permanent sequelae such as quadriplegia – paralysis of all four limbs.
What are the common signs & symptoms of Spinal Cord Injury?
Symptoms of the condition vary depending on the injury’s location and severity. Generally, the common signs and symptoms include:
- Muscle weakness or paralysis;
- Loss of bladder/ bowel function;
- Loss of sensation in the injury area;
- Unusual sweating;
- Abnormal blood pressure;
- Unusual body temperature.
When to see a doctor?
It is advisable that you contact a doctor as soon as you experience significant trauma to your head/ neck. As spinal cord injury isn’t always obvious initially, it may result in severe consequences if left unrecognized. Not to mention, the time between injury and treatment may determine the possible extent of complications and expected recovery.
What causes Spinal Cord Injury?
A traumatic spinal cord injury may be the result of sudden tremors in the spine that fracture or compress the vertebrae. It may also be caused by accidents or falls that cause damage to the spinal cord.
Non-traumatic causes include arthritis, cancer, vascular diseases, inflammation, infection, and spinal disc degeneration. Older people who suffer from osteoporosis are susceptible to spinal cord injuries as well.
What increases the risk of Spinal Cord Injury?
Many factors can increase the risk of spinal cord injury, including:
- Sex. Most patients with spinal cord injury are men. The percentage of women suffering from this condition is only about 20%.
- Age. People from 16-30 or over 65 are at higher risk of spinal cord injury.
- Engagement in risky activities. Diving in too shallow waters or playing sports without proper protective equipment can result in spinal injuries.
- Accidents. For those under 65, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries.
- Medical history. Those who suffer from bone or joint diseases, such as arthritis and osteoporosis, are more likely to get affected by the condition.
Who are at risk of Spinal Cord Injury?
Spinal cord injuries are commonly found in people from 15-25 years old. Men are more likely to get affected than women. In addition, older people are susceptible to spinal cord injuries – their bones are thinner and weaker, so a slight fall may result in serious damage.
Diagnosis & Treatment
Spinal cord injuries are diagnosed based on measuring the patient’s sensory function, movement and examining his/her accident history.
In case the patient has neck pain, is not fully awake, or exhibit signs of muscle weakness/ nerve damage, emergency diagnostic tests may be necessary, including:
- Computerized tomography (CT);
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
When the swelling has subsided, the doctor may perform a comprehensive neurological exam to determine the patient’s level of injury.
There is no effective method to completely reverse the damage of spinal cord injury. However, new treatments that focus on nerve cell regeneration and motor function improvements have been showing great potential.
In the meantime, the purpose of spinal cord injury treatment is to prevent further injury and help patients with their daily activities.
At the scene of accidents, it is essential to immobilize the patient’s spine as quickly as possible by using a neck collar and a carrying board. After he/she is transported to the hospital, the doctor may request an injection of steroid methylprednisolone to treat acute spinal cord injuries. In addition, surgery may be necessary to stabilize the spine or remove bone fragments, foreign objects, herniated disks, and fractured vertebrae.
In case of late treatment, the doctor will focus on preventing complications such as urine retention, respiratory difficulty, deep vein blood clots in the extremities, etc.
For patients who suffer from paralysis or muscle weakness, medical devices such as electric wheelchairs, computer adaptations (key guards, voice recognition, etc.) and electrical stimulation devices can help with their daily life and function restoration.
How to limit the risk of Spinal Cord Injury?
Reducing the risk of spinal cord injury is possible if you make sure to do the following things:
- Wear protective equipment and be cautious while participating in dangerous sports such as diving.
- Work in accordance with safety regulations.
- Wear seat belts while driving.
- Drive safely. Do not drive after drinking/ while under the influence of drugs to avoid accidents.
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Ferri, Fred. Ferri’s Netter Patient Advisor. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders / Elsevier, 2012. Download version
Spinal Cord Trauma. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/spinal-cord-injury/basics/definition/con-20023837. Accessed on July 22, 2019
Spinal Cord Trauma. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001066.htm. Accessed on July 22, 2019