The spinal cord is located in the hollow cavity that is formed by the vertebrae of the spinal column in the back. The spinal cord is the primary conduit for information exchange between the brain and the rest of the body. Since the spinal cord plays such a vital role; any injury to the cord is typically felt throughout the body. Functions such as breathing, movement and coordination, and the senses are potentially affected by trauma to the spinal cord.
Injury and accidents are a primary cause of spinal cord injury. Any trauma or blow that crushes, fractures, dislocates or compresses the vertebrae of the back can potentially cause spinal cord injury. Sometimes the damage to the spinal cord is not obvious at the time of injury but occurs over time afterward. Swelling following an injury can also damage the cord. Penetrating injuries such as gunshots or knife wounds can cause spinal cord injury.
Disease processes such as arthritis, cancer, inflammation, polio, or degenerative disc disease can lead to spinal cord injury. Any disease that contributes to the compression or compromise of the spinal cord has the potential to cause injury.
The severity and symptoms are dependent on the location and nature of the injury. Since most of the effects of the injury are felt below the injury site, the higher the injury the more body functions will be affected. The severity of the injury will determine whether the injury causes partial or complete paralysis and how much of the cord width is damaged.
With a partial spinal cord injury; the cord still conveys some information to and from the brain. A person with a partial cord injury will still have some sensation or function below the injury site. The complete spinal cord injury causes a total or near total loss of function below the injury site. Although the term complete is used, the spinal cord is rarely ever severed in half.
One or more of the following symptoms may result from a spinal cord injury:
- Burning or stinging sensation.
- Paralysis or loss of ability to move one or more of the extremities.
- Sensory loss, such as inability to feel touch, heat or cold.
- Inability to control bowel or bladder.
- Spasms or exaggerated reflexes.
- Decreased sexual function, sensation or fertility
- Shortness of breath, choking due to inability to cough or clear secretions from the lungs.
- Decreased level of consciousness, or consciousness comes and goes
- Weakness, incoordination, balance problems.
- Numbness and or tingling in your hands and feet.
- Impaired breathing
- Deformity of the back or neck
- Feeling of pressure in the neck, head or back.
Avoid moving the injured person and call for help immediately. These symptoms may be indicative of a life threatening injury. X-rays and other imaging tests of the spine are used to confirm a spinal cord injury.
Potential treatment of a spinal cord injury includes:
- Immobilizing the spine to prevent further damage. If you suspect someone has a head or spinal injury; do not move them. Call for emergency help immediately.
- High dose steroids
- Treatment of any underlying disease processes contributing to the problem.
Once the spinal cord suffers tissue damage the prognosis for repair is not good at this time. Long term follow up care after an injury is often needed to ensure further spinal cord injury does not occur.