Spinal cord injuries
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When the spinal cord is subjected to a hard blow, it may cause fractures or dislocations in a person's vertebrae, the series of longitudinally-placed bone disks that comprise the spine. There are some injuries so severe that they cause tissue damage when pieces of injured vertebrae cut into the spinal cord tissue, or damage the nerves contained in it. These nerves that are responsible for carrying messages to the brain become unable to relay any signals below the site of the injury, and the result is paralysis of all parts of the body below the injury site. When a spinal cord injury is minor, a person may still retain some sensation below the injury, including some measure of movement.


A majority of spinal cord injuries result in permanent disability and paralysis. Most of this paralysis may involve the loss of movement in the arms and legs, known as quadriplegia, as well as and other parts of the body, mostly below the area of injury. A spinal cord injury that affects the body's lower extremities is known as paraplegia. With immediate treatment, a person can avoid or minimize the long-term and debilitating effects of spinal cord injuries.

Symptoms of spinal cord injuries will depend on either the location of the injury or how severe the injury is. Spinal cord injuries located higher up in the spinal cord may result in a higher degree of paralysis. An injury located lower on the spine may affect only the hips or the lower extremities with paralysis.

The spinal cord damage will affect the nerve fibers along the site of the injury. It may also harm many of the muscles and nerves surrounding the injury area. A cervical injury is a spinal cord injury that occurs around the area of the neck, and it may have adverse effects on a person's breathing, making the patient unable to breathe without the aid of a respirator. Paralysis to a person's arms and legs are another result. A thoracic and lumbar spine injury that occurs along the area of the lower back affects movement in the legs, and causes a person to lose control of their bladder, bowels, as well as sexual functions.

Based on the severity of a spinal cord injury, the damage is categorized into partial spinal cord injuries or complete spinal cord injuries. Those with the former will still be able to have a modicum of sensation and some motor function below the injury site. Symptoms of complete spinal cord injuries, on the other hand, are total or nearly total loss of movement below the injury site. Patients may still recover from the effects of partial spinal cord injuries. However, recoveries from complete spinal cord injuries are nil.


A person who has a spinal cord injury will first experience severe pain and a sensation described as intense stinging due to the damaged nerve fibers in the spine. There will be a loss of movement and sensation, and the patient will be unable to feel cold, heat, or even touch.
Spinal Cord Injuries
Image: Spinal Cord Injuries

Patients will also experience loss of bladder and bowel control, and there will be a manifestation of extreme reflex movements or spasms. There will also be a loss of sexual sensitivity and function, as well as fertility. A patient whose spinal cord injury is located higher up the spine will find it difficult to breathe, cough, and clear any secretions from the throat or lungs.

Spinal cord injuries may either be traumatic of nontraumatic. A hard blow to the spine causes traumatic injuries. This kind of trauma will result in a fracturing or dislocation of the vertebrae, where the disks are crushed and the nerves compressed. These kinds of spinal cord injuries are commonly caused by motor vehicle accidents, acts of violence, such as knife or gunshot wounds, falls, and injuries from sports and other recreational activities.

Diseases like cancer, arthritis, infections, blood vessel disorders, inflammatory diseases cause nontraumatic injuries to the spinal cord, or when the disks of the spine degenerate.

A person whose spinal cord is injured will not manifest symptoms immediately. Most spinal cord injuries may start with bleeding or swelling around the site of the injury. Numbness and paralysis soon follow. It is critical that a doctor is able to determine how bad the damage is and if there are any complications in order to ascertain how well the patient can recover.


Considerable trauma to the neck and head will necessitate immediate medical attention and evaluation. It is in the best interest of the trauma patient for paramedics and doctors to assume they have spinal cord injuries until complete diagnosis has proven otherwise.

Tests to determine the existence of a spinal cord injury include x-rays which show the extent of vertebral damage, fractures or spinal degeneration; CT scans that provide a three-dimensional image of the injury; magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, to provide a computer-generated image of the injury site, and myelography, which involves the use of an injected dye, giving the doctor a better visual of the injured spinal nerves.

The doctor may also order a neurological exam to ascertain how much of the spinal cord is injured, and to determine a patient's likelihood of recovery.

When faced with an emergency case of spinal cord injury, paramedics on the scene of an accident immediately immobilize the patient with a rigid neck collar and place the patient on a rigid carrying board to prevent further movement from damaging the spine and head even further. Emergency medical technicians will make sure the patient still has the ability to breath, and they will take measures to prevent the patient from going into shock while they transport the victim to the hospital.

In the emergency room, the patient's blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing will be continually monitored as diagnostic tests are undertaken to determine the extent of the injury. The patient will receive medications, such as methylprednisolone, a corticosteroid that reduces nerve cell damage and inflammation in people with severe spinal cord injuries.


Traction with metal braces, a harness, and a rigid neck collar will be required to immobilize the patient's spine and to ensure that it is properly aligned during the healing stage. Meanwhile, the doctor shall undertake the patient's ongoing medical care, which will include preventing the occurrence of conditions stemming from immobilization, such as bedsores, blood clots, urinary tract infections, muscle contractures, and deconditioning. Therapists will also assist the patient in motion exercises geared for paralyzed limbs.

Treatment for patients with spinal cord injuries will range from a week to a couple of months depending on the severity of the injury. After the patient checks out of the hospital, ongoing rehabilitation will include sessions with a physical therapist, rehabilitation nurse, dietician, occupational therapist, and a specialist in spinal cord injuries.

Continuing therapy will help the patient recoup the strength in their arms and legs, regain their fine motor skills, and learn to adapt to the extent of recovery from their spinal cord injuries.
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