A spinal cord injury is damage to the spinal cord. It’s an extremely serious type of physical trauma that’s likely to have a lasting and significant impact on most aspects of daily life.
The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves and other tissue that the vertebrae of the spine contains and protects. The vertebrae are the bones stacked on top of each other that make up the spine. The spine contains many nerves, and extends from the brain’s base down the back, ending close to the buttocks.
The spinal cord is responsible for sending messages from the brain to all parts of the body. It also sends messages from the body to the brain. We are able to perceive pain and move our limbs because of messages sent through the spinal cord.
If the spinal cord sustains an injury, some or all of these impulses may not be able to “get through.” The result is a complete or total loss of sensation and mobility below the injury. 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.
A spinal cord injury is often the result of an unpredictable accident or violent event. 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’s 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 or spinal injuries during sporting events
- electrical accidents
- severe twisting of the middle portion of the torso
Some symptoms of 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, pressure, stiffness in the back or neck area
- signs of shock
- unnatural positioning of the head
If you believe you or someone else has a spinal cord injury, follow the procedure below:
- Call 911 right away. The sooner medical help arrives, the better.
- Don’t move the person or disturb them in any way unless it’s 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’re capable of getting up and walking on their own.
- If the person isn’t 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 and complete neurological exam. This will help them determine whether there’s an injury to the spinal cord and 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 due to unpredictable events, the best you can do is reduce your risk. Some risk-reducing measures include:
- always wearing a seatbelt while in a car
- wearing proper protective gear while playing sports
- never diving into water unless you’ve examined it first to make sure it’s deep enough and free of rocks
Some people lead full and productive lives after a spinal cord injury. However, there are severe potential effects of a spinal cord injury. 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 need assistance with daily living activities 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.