When a person experiences a spinal cord injury, it can result in damage to various parts of the spinal cord, as well as the nerves located at the lower end of the spinal canal (known as the cauda equina), as well as the surrounding tissues and bones. The extent of the damage can vary in severity, and can often lead to permanent changes in bodily functions such as strength, sensation, and other functions below the area of the injury.
When an injury prevents nerves from communicating with the brain, the body experiences a loss of crucial functions. These may include bladder and bowel control, breathing, regulation of heart rate, the body’s metabolism, muscle movements, sensations, and reflexes.
The neurological level of an injury is the lowest portion of the spinal cord that is still intact after suffering damage. The completeness of the injury can fall into one of the following types:
- Complete: Total paralysis (loss of sensory and motor function) below the level of the injury results from a complete injury. Both sides of the body are affected. A complete damage may result in the paralysis of the lower body (paraplegia) or all four limbs (quadriplegia).
- Quadriplegia: Also known as tetraplegia. This indicates that the spinal cord injury has an impact on the arms, hands, trunk, legs, and pelvic organs.
- Paraplegia: The trunk, legs, and pelvic organs may be completely or partially paralyzed.
- Incomplete: Some function (sensory and motor function) may still be present on one or both sides of the body following an incomplete damage. There are still certain channels where the body and brain can communicate.
Individuals who have recently sustained a spinal cord injury may feel as if their entire life has been altered. The injury can have psychological, emotional, and social impacts on them.
Numerous scientists are confident that advancements in science will eventually enable the repair of spinal cord injuries. Ongoing research projects are being conducted worldwide to pursue this goal. Meanwhile, medical interventions and therapy have made it possible for many individuals with spinal cord injuries to lead active and independent lives.
To determine the severity and extent of the neurological injury, the healthcare provider will do a number of tests. The following signs and symptoms could result from a spinal cord injury:
- Loss of muscle movements
- Loss of sensation
- Loss of bowel or bladder function
- Reflex activities or spasms are heightened
- Changes to sexual sensitivity, sexual function, and fertility
- Pain or a sharp stinging sensation caused by spinal cord never damage.
- Problems breathing, coughing, or releasing lungs’ secretions
Emergency medical attention should be sought if an individual experiences any of the following symptoms after an injury:
- Severe back pain or pressure at the neck, head or back
- Loss of strength, weakness, or paralysis in any part of the body
- Loss of sensation in the hands, fingers, feet, or toes, including numbness or tingling
- Loss of bladder or bowel function
- Having problems with walking and balancing
- Difficulty in breathing following an injury
- Abnormally twisted or positioned neck or back
Individuals who have suffered significant head or neck trauma require urgent medical attention to rule out any potential spinal injuries. Until proven differently, it is safe to presume that trauma victims suffer spinal injuries because sometimes a severe spinal injury is not instantly obvious. In some cases, a severe spinal injury may not be immediately apparent and as a result, there may be a risk of further harm. The onset of numbness or paralysis can occur suddenly or develop gradually over time.
The duration between an accident and receiving medical attention can greatly influence the severity of the consequences and the expected recovery time.
Damage to the spinal column’s disks, ligaments, or vertebrae as well as the spinal cord itself can cause spinal cord injuries. A sudden, traumatic impact to the spine that fractures, dislocates, crushes, or compresses one or more vertebrae can cause a traumatic spinal cord injury. The spinal cord may also be punctured and cut by a gunshot or knife wound. Bleeding, swelling, inflammation, and fluid buildup in and around the spinal cord typically cause more damage over the course of days or weeks.
A non-traumatic spinal cord injury can be brought on by arthritic conditions, cancer, inflammation, infections, or degenerative disk disease of the spine.
Damage to nerve fibers can result from both traumatic and nontraumatic causes. It can affect the nerve fibers that pass through the injured area as well as some or all of the muscles and nerves below the damaged site.
The most common causes of spinal cord injuries are:
- Vehicle accidents: Nearly half of all new spinal cord injuries each year are caused by auto and motorcycle accidents, which rank as the primary cause of spinal cord injuries.
- Falls: After the age of 65, falls are the most common reason for spinal cord injuries.
- Violence: Spinal cord injuries from gunshot wounds, and knife injuries are also frequent.
- Sports injuries: 10% of spinal cord injuries are the result of athletic endeavors like impact sports and scuba diving.
- Diseases: Spinal cord injuries can also result from cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis, and spinal cord inflammation.
Anyone can sustain a spinal cord injury, which usually results from accidents. However, certain risk factors can make someone more likely to sustain one, such as:
- Gender: Men are more frequently affected than women by spinal cord injuries.
- Age: People at age 16 to 30 years old sustain more than half of all spinal cord injuries. When people reached the age of 65 and above, the risk increase due to that most injuries in older adults are due to falls.
- Alcohol intake: About 25% of traumatic spinal cord injuries are caused by drinking alcohol.
- Risky activities: Spinal cord injuries can result from participating in sports or diving into too shallow of water without wearing the appropriate safety equipment or taking the necessary precautions. For those under 65, automobile accidents are the main cause of spinal cord injuries.
- Pre-existing diseases: If a person has an underlying condition like osteoporosis that affects their bones or joints, even a relatively minor injury can result in a spinal cord injury.