A spinal cord injury, or damage to the spinal cord, is an extremely serious type of physical trauma. It will likely have a lasting and significant impact on most aspects of daily life.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the group that is most at risk for spinal cord injuries are males between the ages of 15 and 35. Most people who are injured are both young and in good health at the time the trauma occurs (NIH).
The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves and other tissue contained and protected by the vertebrae of the spine, which are the bones stacked on top of each other that make up the spine. It is composed of many nerves, and extends from the brain’s base down the back, ending close to the buttocks.
The spinal cord is responsible for transporting impulses (messages) from the brain to all parts of the body, and from the body to the brain. We are able to perceive pain and move our limbs because of messages transmitted through the spinal cord.
If the spinal cord is injured, some or all of these impulses may be prevented from “getting through.” The result is a complete or total loss of sensation and mobility below the injury. Therefore, a spinal cord injury closer to the neck will typically cause paralysis throughout a larger part of the body than one in the lower back area.
Some signs that a person may have a spinal cord injury include:
- problems walking
- loss of control of the bladder or bowels
- inability to move the arms or legs
- feelings of spreading numbness or tingling in the extremities
- pain or stiffness in the neck area
- signs of shock
- unnatural positioning of the head
Spinal cord injuries are often the result of unpredictable accidents and/or violent events. The following can all result in damage to the spinal cord:
- a violent attack (such as a stabbing or a gunshot)
- diving into water that is too shallow and hitting the bottom
- trauma during a car accident (specifically trauma to the face, head and neck region, back, or chest area)
- falling from a significant height
- head injuries during sporting events
- electrical accidents
- severe twisting of the middle portion of the torso
Anyone who believes they or someone else has sustained a spinal cord injury should follow the tips below:
- Call 911 right away. The sooner medical help can arrive on the scene, the better.
- Do not move the person or disturb him or her in any way unless it is absolutely necessary. This includes repositioning the person’s head or attempting to remove a helmet.
- Encourage the person to stay as still as possible, even if they feel they are capable of getting up and walking on their own.
- If the person is not breathing, perform CPR. Don’t tilt the head back, however. Instead, move the jaw forward.
When the person arrives at the hospital, doctors will do a physical exam as well as a complete neurological exam. This will help them determine whether the spinal cord was indeed injured and, if so, where. CT scans, MRIs, X-rays of the spine, and evoked potential testing (which measures how quickly nerve signals reach the brain) are all diagnostic tools that doctors may use.
Because spinal cord injuries are often caused by unpredictable events, the best you can do is reduce your risk. Some risk-reducing measures include:
- always wearing a seatbelt while driving
- wearing the proper protective gear while playing sports
- never diving into water unless you have examined it first to make sure it is deep enough and free of rocks
Some people lead full and productive lives after a spinal cord injury. However, the potential effects of a spinal cord injury should not be downplayed. The vast majority of people will need assistive devices such as walkers or wheelchairs to deal with loss of mobility, and some may even be paralyzed from the neck down.
You may require assistance with activities of daily living and learn to perform tasks differently. Pressure sores and urinary tract infections are common complications. You also may expect to undergo intense rehabilitation treatment for your spinal cord injury.