A spinal cord injury (SCI) damages a portion of the spinal cord or the nerves at the end of the spinal canal. It may result from direct trauma to the spinal cord. It also can be due to a complication of a disease affecting the tissues, blood vessels, or bones surrounding the spinal cord and its nerves. Injuries to the spinal cord and nerves may cause permanent damage and changes in some body functions.
The adult spinal cord is about 18 inches long. It extends from the base of the brain to about waist-level of the trunk. Spinal cord acts as the primary communication network between the brain and all other body parts. Upper motor neurons are nerves that carry messages between the brain and spinal nerves lying along the spinal tract. Lower motor neurons connect the spinal cord to other body parts. They manage sensations and instruct body parts to perform various actions.
Causes of spinal cord injuries
Injury to the spinal cord can happen for various reasons:
- sports injuries;
- motor vehicle accidents;
- gunshot wounds;
- personal assaults;
- industrial accidents.
Conditions like osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis can increase the risk of spinal cord injury. In addition, trauma can occur in case of spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal channel) due to aging and degeneration.
Damage in the spinal cord leads to the loss of function in the nerves, organs, and limbs below the injury site.
Complete SCI is characterized by a complete loss of muscle function and sensation.
Incomplete SCI is described as partial damage with retention of some functions.
Most of the time, the condition affects both sides of the body equally. The symptoms often include:
- mobility problems;
- sensation loss;
- loss of bowel or bladder control;
- an unnatural head position.
Spinal cord injury diagnosis starts with a medical history and a thorough physical examination. X-ray analysis is also an effective tool to detect dislocations or vertebral fractures. Often the physician will need special imaging methods that can provide more detailed information.
CT scan: A computed tomography scan can identify additional signs using cross-sectional views.
MRI: A magnetic resonance imaging uses magnets to scan soft tissues like the spinal cord, nerves, ligaments, and discs.
Spinal cord injury rehabilitation
An injury of the spinal cord is a medical emergency and needs to be treated immediately. Often patients are prescribed corticosteroids. They are used to reduce swelling and pressure on the spinal cord. In some cases, surgery may be a necessary approach to:
- remove foreign materials like pieces of metal, glass, or bone fragments;
- remove fluids or tissues that compress the spinal cord;
- realign vertebrae;
- fuse broken or fractured vertebrae;
- apply braces or spinal hardware.
Many people who have injured spinal cord need rehabilitation. Physical and occupational therapists help patients regain mobility, strength, and functioning after their injury has healed.