Spinal cord injury

Spinal cord injury

What is the spinal cord injury?

What are the causes of spinal cord injury?

What are the symptoms of spinal cord injury?
How is a spinal cord injury diagnosed?
How is a spinal cord injury treated?
What happens if your spinal cord is damaged?
Can a spinal cord injury heal?
What are the types of spinal cord injuries?
What is the best treatment for spinal cord injury?

 

Spinal Cord Injury Facts
  • The most common cause of spinal cord injury is trauma.
  • Spinal cord injury is most common in young, white men.
  • Spinal cord injury can be either complete or incomplete. In complete injuries there is no function below the level of injury. In incomplete injuries there is some function remaining below the level of injury.
  • Early immobilization and treatment are the most important factors in achieving recovery from spinal cord injury.
  • Aggressive rehabilitation and assistive devices allow even people with severe spinal cord injuries to interact in society and remain productive.
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What is the spinal cord injury?

The spinal cord is a collection of nerves that travels from the bottom of the brain down your back. There are 31 pairs of nerves that leave the spinal cord and go to your arms, legs, chest and abdomen. These nerves allow your brain to give commands to your muscles and cause movements of your arms and legs. The nerves that control your arms exit from the upper portion of the spinal cord, while the nerves to your legs exit from the lower portion of the spinal cord. The nerves also control the function of your organs including your heart, lungs, bowels, and bladder. For example, signals from the spinal cord control how fast your heart beats and your rate of breathing.

Other nerves travel from your arms and legs back to the spinal cord. These nerves bring back information from your body to your brain including the senses of touch, pain, temperature, and position. The spinal cord runs through the spinal canal. This canal is surrounded by the bones in your neck and back called vertebrae which make up your back bone. The vertebrae are divided into 7 neck (cervical) vertebrae, 12 chest (thoracic) vertebrae and 5 lower back (lumbar) vertebrae. The vertebrae help protect the spinal cord from injury.

 

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Spinal Cord Injury

The spinal cord is very sensitive to injury. Unlike other parts of your body, the spinal cord does not have the ability to repair itself if it is damaged. A spinal cord injury occurs when there is damage to the spinal cord either from trauma, loss of its normal blood supply, or compression from tumor or infection. There are approximately 12,000 new cases of spinal cord injury each year in the United States. They are most common in white males.

Spinal cord injuries are described as either complete or incomplete. In a complete spinal cord injury there is complete loss of sensation and muscle function in the body below the level of the injury. In an incomplete spinal cord injury there is some remaining function below the level of the injury. In most cases both sides of the body are affected equally.

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

 

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Spinal Cord Injury Treatment

The first step in treatment of a suspected spinal cord injury is to verify the patient is breathing and the heart is beating. A spinal cord injury in the upper neck can cause a loss of control of normal breathing. This may require the placement of a breathing tube and use of a ventilator.

The next step in treatment of a spinal cord injury is immobilization. This often occurs at the time of injury prior to being transported to the hospital. Emergency medical technicians may place the patient in a cervical collar or on a backboard to help prevent the spine from moving. If the patient has a spinal cord injury, further movement of the spine could lead to further damage.

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What are the causes of spinal cord injury?

The most common cause of spinal cord injury is trauma. Nearly half of the injuries are caused by motor vehicle accidents. Other types of trauma include:

  • falls from heights,
  • violence (stabbing or gunshot wounds to the spine), and
  • sporting injuries (diving, football, rugby, equestrian, etc.).

Spinal cord injury can also be caused by compression of the cord by a tumor, infection, or inflammation. Some patients have a smaller than normal spinal canal (called spinal stenosis) and are at a higher risk of injury to the spinal cord.

All tissues in your body including the spinal cord require a good blood supply to deliver oxygen and other nutrients. Failure of this blood supply to the spinal cord can cause spinal cord injury. This can be caused by an aneurysm (ballooning of a blood vessel), compression of a blood vessel or a prolonged drop in blood pressure.

What are the symptoms of spinal cord injury?

The symptoms of spinal cord injury depend on where the spinal cord is injured and whether or not the injury is complete or incomplete. In incomplete injuries, patients have some remaining function of their bodies below the level of injury, while in complete injuries they have no function below the level of injury.

Injuries to the spinal cord can cause weakness or complete loss of muscle function and loss of sensation in the body below the level of injury, loss of control of the bowels and bladder, and loss of normal sexual function. Spinal cord injuries in the upper neck can cause difficulty breathing and may require the use of a breathing machine, or ventilator.

How is a spinal cord injury diagnosed?

The first step in diagnosing a spinal cord injury is a medical history and physical examination. The patient’s  physician will obtain a medical history asking questions about the details surrounding the time of the injury. The amount of time since the injury is important because spinal cord injury is a medical emergency. The quicker the patient obtains treatment, the better the chances for recovery. Other details of the medical history could include details of any prior neck or back injuries or surgeries, the presence of pain in the neck or back, any weakness in the arms or legs, loss of bowel or bladder control, loss of sensation in the arms or legs, and other previous medical conditions.

The physical examination will include testing to see if sensation to touch is intact in the arms and legs as well as testing muscle strength and reflexes in the arms and legs. The patient may be kept in a cervical collar or on a backboard to immobilize them until the physician determines whether or not the patient has a spinal cord injury.

The next step is often x-rays of the neck or back. These can help identify a fracture or dislocation of the vertebrae. These may or may not be present with a spinal cord injury. It is possible to have a spinal cord injury without an injury to the vertebrae. X-rays can also help identify a tumor or infection or severe arthritis that could cause spinal cord injury.

A computed tomography (CT) scan is a more advanced imaging test that can give the physician a better view of the vertebrae. CT can identify some injuries to the vertebrae not seen on the plain x-rays. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan is another more advanced imaging study that can identify a spinal cord injury. The MRI is better at evaluating the soft tissues including the ligaments, intervertebral discs, nerves and spinal cord. The MRI scan also can show evidence of injury within the spinal cord.

 

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How is a spinal cord injury treated?

The first step in treatment of a suspected spinal cord injury is to verify the patient is breathing and the heart is beating. A spinal cord injury in the upper neck can cause a loss of control of normal breathing. This may require the placement of a breathing tube and use of a ventilator.

The next step in treatment of a spinal cord injury is immobilization. This often occurs at the time of injury prior to being transported to the hospital. Emergency medical technicians may place the patient in a cervical collar or on a backboard to help prevent the spine from moving. If the patient has a spinal cord injury, further movement of the spine could lead to further damage.

After a spinal cord injury is diagnosed, the patient might be started on a high dose of steroids. This could help decrease the amount of damage to the spinal cord by reducing inflammation and swelling. There are risks associated with using steroids for spinal cord injury. The patient’s doctor can help decide if steroids are appropriate. The use of steroids is only beneficial if they are started within eight hours of the time of injury.

Next the patient may be placed in traction or a halo device around the head to try to stabilize the spine and prevent further damage. Many cases of spinal cord injury are treated with surgery. There are two major goals of surgery.

  • The first goalis to relieve any pressure on the spinal cord. This could involve removing portions of the vertebrae that have broken and are compressing the spinal cord. If the spinal cord is being compressed by tumor, infection or severe arthritis, surgery can be performed to reduce the amount of compression.
  • The second major goalof surgery for spinal cord injury is to stabilize the spine. If the vertebrae are weakened from fracture, tumor or infection, they may not be capable of supporting the normal weight from the body and protecting the spinal cord. A combination of metal screws, rods and plates may be necessary to help hold the vertebrae together and stabilize them until the bones heal.

There are many potential complications related to spinal cord injury that may require specific treatment. These complications include:

  • urinary tract infections or urinary incontinence (inability to control the flow of urine),
  • bowel incontinence (inability to control bowel movements),
  • pressure sores,
  • infections in the lungs (pneumonia),
  • blood clots,
  • muscle spasms

 

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What happens if your spinal cord is damaged?

A complete spinal cord injury causes permanent damage to the area of the spinal cord that is affected. Paraplegia or tetraplegia are results of complete spinal cord injuries. When the spinal cord is damaged, the message from the brain cannot get through. The spinal nerves below the level of injury get signals, but they are not able to go up the spinal tracts to the brain. Reflex movements can happen, but these are not movements that can be controlled.

 

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Can a spinal cord injury heal?

Currently, there is no cure for spinal cord injury, Many of the most exciting advances have resulted in a decrease in damage at the time of the injury. the spinal cord does not have the ability to repair itself if it is damaged. A spinal cord injury occurs when there is damage to the spinal cord either from trauma, loss of its normal blood supply, or compression from tumor or infection.

What are the types of spinal cord injuries?

Spinal cord injuries can be divided into two types of injury complete and incomplete:

  • complete spinal cord injurycauses permanent damage to the area of the spinal cord that is affected. Paraplegia or tetraplegia are results of complete spinal cord injuries.
  • An incomplete spinal cord injuryrefers to partial damage to the spinal cord. The ability to move and the amount of feeling depends on the area of the spine injured and the severity of the injury. Outcomes are based on a patient’s health and medical history.

 

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What is the best treatment for spinal cord injury?

Treatment of SCI begins before the patient is admitted to the hospital. Paramedics or other emergency medical services personnel carefully immobilize the entire spine at the scene of the accident. In the emergency department, this immobilization is continued while more immediate life-threatening problems are identified and addressed. If the patient must undergo emergency surgery because of trauma to the abdomen, chest or another area, immobilization and alignment of the spine are maintained during the operation.

Non-Surgical Treatments

If a patient has a SCI, he or she will usually be admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU). For many injuries of the cervical spine, traction may be indicated to help bring the spine into proper alignment. Standard ICU care, including maintaining a stable blood pressure, monitoring cardiovascular function, ensuring adequate ventilation and lung function and preventing and promptly treating infection and other complications, is essential so that SCI patients can achieve the best possible outcome.

Surgery

Occasionally, a surgeon may wish to take a patient to the operating room immediately if the spinal cord appears to be compressed by a herniated disc, blood clot or other lesion. This is most commonly done for patients with an incomplete SCI or with progressive neurological deterioration. Even if surgery cannot reverse damage to the spinal cord, surgery may be needed to stabilize the spine to prevent future pain or deformity. The surgeon will decide which procedure will provide the greatest benefit to the patient.

Follow-up

Persons with neurologically complete tetraplegia are at high risk for secondary medical complications, including pneumonia, pressure ulcers and deep vein thrombosis. Pressure ulcers are the most frequently observed complications, beginning at 15% during the first year post-injury and steadily increasing thereafter.

Recovery of function depends upon the severity of the initial injury. Unfortunately, those who sustain a complete SCI are unlikely to regain function below the level of injury. However, if there is some degree of improvement, it usually evidences itself within the first few days after the accident.

Incomplete injuries usually show some degree of improvement over time, but this varies with the type of injury. Although full recovery may be unlikely in most cases, some patients may be able to improve at least enough to ambulate and to control bowel and bladder function.

Once a patient is stabilized, care and treatment focuses on supportive care and rehabilitation. Family members, nurses or specially trained aides all may provide supportive care. This care might include helping the patient bathe, dress, change positions to prevent bedsores and other assistance.

Rehabilitation often includes physical therapy, occupational therapy and counseling for emotional support. The services may initially be provided while the patient is hospitalized. Following hospitalization, some patients are admitted to a rehabilitation facility. Other patients can continue rehab on an outpatient basis and/or at home.

 

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