A spinal cord injury usually begins with a sudden, traumatic blow to the spine that fractures or dislocates vertebrae. The damage begins at the moment a spine injury occurs when displaced bone fragments, disc material or ligaments bruise or tear into spinal cord tissue.
A spine injury doesn’t necessarily sever the spinal cord. Instead, the injury is more likely to cause fractures and compression of the vertebrae, which then crush and destroy nerve cells that carry signals via the spinal cord between the brain and the rest of the body. Some injuries will allow almost complete recovery. Others will leave a patient paralyzed.
Most of the spinal cord damage occurs at the time of the spine injury, though swelling in the first 24 hours may worsen the condition, either temporarily or permanently.
Symptoms of a spine injury include loss of movement or sensory loss. Spinal cord injuries are classified as “complete” or “incomplete.” In complete injuries, all motor activities (movement) of body parts and all sensory feelings (touch, pain, temperature) below the injury site are permanently lost.
In an incomplete injury, some movement or feeling below the injury site is present. Patients have a greater possibility to recover lost functions but no guarantee.
Once a spine injury has occurred, respiratory function and vital signs are checked. A neurological examination can determine how much of the spinal cord has been damaged and how much sensory, motor and reflex function has been lost. Patients with a spine injury will be examined for damage to other areas, including the head and heart. An electrocardiogram (EKG) can check for cardiac complications. X-rays will be taken of the spine.
Improved emergency care for patients with a spine injury and aggressive treatment and rehabilitation can minimize damage to the nervous system and restore limited abilities.
Treatment of a spinal cord injury centers around reduction of spinal cord compression and stabilization of the spine. Fractures can be addressed surgically or non-surgically. Removal of any bone compressing the spinal cord is essential to relieve pressure, maintain the flow of blood and oxygen and limit mechanical damage.
Respiratory complications can occur with a spine injury. About one-third of those injured in the neck area will require respiratory support. The steroid drug methylprednisolone appears to reduce the damage to nerve cells if it is given within the first eight hours after a spine injury.
Rehabilitation programs once a patient is stable combine physical therapies with skill-building activities and counseling to provide social and emotional support.
In most cases, a spine injury happens because of an accident, so take precautions during potentially dangerous activities. Don’t dive unless you know the depth of an area; wear seatbelts; wear a helmet when cycling and roller blading or skateboarding.
-- Spinal Injury Foundation
-- The National Spinal Cord Injury Association
-- National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke