The spine is an essential aspect of your central nervous system. It is like a highway that connects the brain to your entire body ( levels ).
Any injury to the spinal cord can have life-long consequences, which is why it is important to avoid it at all costs. However, if you do sustain a spinal cord injury, proper medical treatment can help you address it and maintain a good lifestyle.
Patients who have suffered spinal cord injury should take time to understand what it means and how they can adjust to it.
The treatment usually lasts for several months and can include physical therapy sessions. This article explains everything you need to know about such injuries in detail.
A Brief Look At the Spinal Cord Levels
The spinal cord is approximately 18 inches long and stretches from the base of the neck to the hips. It is divided into four different sections aside from the tailbone and these sections are:
C1-7 Cervical Vertebrae – This section is located in the neck and at the top of the spinal cord structure.
T1-12 Thoracic Vertebrae – This section is located in the upper back, immediately under the cervical vertebrae. It is also connected to the rib cage.
L1-5 Lumbar Vertebrae – This section is located directly under the thoracic section and runs along the lower back.
S1-5 Sacral Vertebrae –It is located in the pelvic region.
The spinal cord itself contains UMNs or Upper Motor Neurons while the nerves that branch out from it contain LMNs or Lower Motor Neurons.
All of these components must function well and remain intact for the spinal cord to be healthy.
Read More : Spinal Cord Anatomy
What is Spinal Cord Injury?
Spinal cord injuries come in different forms and can wary severity. This part of the body is well-protected, which means it takes a serious impact for anything to damage the spinal cord. It is considered a spinal cord injury if any aspect of this structure is damaged. Some of the most common injuries include:
Tetraplegia or Quadriplegia – People who sustain this injury have damaged their spinal cord in the cervical region or in the neck. This means the area under this damaged section won’t function naturally and the patient will experience muscle strength loss in their entire body under the neck.
They won’t be able to use their arms, legs, trunk, and pelvis as they did before the injury.
Paraplegia – If your spinal cord is damaged in the thoracic or lumbar region, which is located in the upper and lower back, you might be able to retain the use of your arms and upper body. This injury usually affects the lower body and the legs.
These are the two types of spinal cord injuries you can sustain and they decide which part of your body is affected. However, this isn’t the only factor to consider when it comes to spinal cord injuries.
Spinal Cord Injury Severities
The severity of your spinal cord injury will also have an impact on body function. This is divided into three broad categories and they include:
The patient experiences a complete loss of function if the injury is complete. This happens if the spinal cord is severely bruised, has suffered a contusion, or if there is compromised blood flow to the region. Very severe injuries like the spinal cord being cut are rare but when that happens, the damage is permanent and can be fatal. Approximately 50% of all spinal cord injuries are complete and affect both sides of the body.
Incomplete injuries are less severe because in many cases, one side of the body will retain some function while the other is without function.
Incomplete injuries can take up any form based on the location and nature of the injury. Here’s a look at different types of injuries:
Anterior Cord Syndrome :
Patients with this syndrome might retain some sensation but most detailed movement and function are compromised. They sustain an injury to the motor and sensory pathways present in the anterior sections of the cord.
Central Cord Syndrome :
Patients have this syndrome if they damage the large nerve fibers in their spinal cord. These fibers carry information from the brain, particularly the cerebral cortex, to the cord.
Damage to this section can cause problems like paralysis and loss of fine motor control in upper extremities. Patients will experience less loss of control in the lower extremities. Symptoms depend on the location and severity of the injury.
This is a rare injury where patients sustain trauma to one side of the spine, usually around the neck or back. This can cause loss of movement and sensation around and below the trauma.
Many patients experience loss of pain and temperature sensation in one side of the body.
A doctor will thoroughly examine the injury to determine what kind of symptoms you might have. Based on their findings, they’ll come up with a long-term treatment plan to help you lead a relatively stable life.
This injury is caused by punctures or penetration from a gunshot or similar weapons might sound serious, but they are usually stable. This means a patient might still retain some or complete mobility if the injury is handled carefully. Emergency responders will place a neck brace to stabilize the spine in such cases.
What are the Signs of Spinal Cord Injury?
Injuries to the spine are immediately noticeable because they can be quite painful. You must keep an eye out for symptoms like:
Severe pain or pressure along the back, particularly in the head and neck region.
Loss of control over some parts of your body.
Unusual urinary or bowel movements like urgency, retention, or inconstancy.
Difficulty breathing immediately after the injury.
Difficulty with walking or maintaining balance.
Band-like pain or pressure in the thorax region.
Numbness, tingling, or complete loss of sensation in the hands or legs.
If you experience any of these problems immediately after an injury to the back, call paramedics for emergency medical assistance.
They may need to stabilize your spine with a brace or something similar to prevent further injuries. If the spine isn’t immobilized immediately after the injury, you might experience problems.
How Is the Treatment Handled?
Most spinal cord injuries are permanent and require a life-long treatment plan. Here’s a brief walk-through of the entire process:
The paramedics will immediately take you to the Intensive Care Unit for stabilization. The standard ICU care involves monitoring blood pressure, cardiovascular function, and keeping an eye on lung function. The doctor might also add a traction to bring the spine back to proper alignment.
The patient is immediately taken to surgery if there are signs of spinal cord compression due to a herniated disc, lesion, blood clots, and other such problems.
A surgery is essential to stabilize the spine and ensure the patient doesn’t experience any pain or deformity down the line.
Doctors will keep an eye out for secondary complications like pneumonia, deep vein thrombosis, pressure ulcers, pulmonary embolism, and a variety of infections.
Once the initial care is complete, patients work with doctors and physical therapists to improve their mobility. Even if there’s no cure for such injuries, the body can adjust.
With good care and regular therapy, it is possible to lead a good-quality life. It is important to follow the doctor’s instructions carefully to make sure there are no complications during the recovery period.
Mortality Rate Related to Spinal Cord Injuries
It’s rare for patients to die solely because of spinal cord injuries. Unfortunately, most die because of other injuries sustained during such an accident.
As mentioned before, it takes a lot to damage the spinal cord. The impact is often severe enough to cause fatal injuries to other areas of the body, which leads to fatalities.
People also die because of respiratory infections and diseases, heart diseases, and other such serious issues more often than they do because of spinal cord trauma.
Prompt treatment, immediate stabilization, and good therapy will help you deal with this injury and ensure you can adjust to the changes in your body.