The spinal cord is a bundle of nervous tissue and support cells that extends from the brain to the lumbar region of the spinal column. There are 31 pairs of nerves that extend from the spinal cord and lead to the arms, legs, chest and abdomen. Signals from the brain use these nerves to command muscles and cause movements of the arms and legs. The nerves from the upper portion of the spinal cord control the arms while those from the lower portion control the legs. The nerves also control heart rate, breathing rate, bowel and bladder function.
Other nerves travel back through the arms and legs to the spinal cord relaying information about the senses of touch, pain, temperature and position. The spinal cord is located within the spinal canal, which is surrounded by bones known as vertebrae. These vertebrae help protect against spinal cord injury.
What is a Spinal Cord Injury?
The spinal cord, unlike other parts of the body does not have the ability to repair itself if damaged and is very prone to injury. The most common cause of damage to the spinal cord is trauma but loss of normal blood supply or compression from tumor or infection is another cause. There are approximately 12,000 new cases of spinal cord injury in the U.S. each year. The most common cause of spinal cord injury is auto accidents, followed by falls from heights, violence and sports related injuries. The most common victims are white males.
Spinal cord injuries are categorized as either complete or incomplete. In a complete spinal cord injury, complete loss of sensation occurs below the point of injury. In an incomplete spinal cord injury some functioning below the point of injury remains. In most cases both sides of the body are equally affected. A complete injury to the upper part of the spinal column in the neck can result in quadriplegia-paralysis of all four limbs, where a lower spinal cord injury can cause paralysis of the legs only.
Diagnosing Spinal Cord Injury
The symptoms of spinal cord injury depend on the location of the injury and whether the injury is complete or incomplete. Injuries to the spinal cord can cause weakness or a total loss of function and sensation in the body below the level of injury as well as loss bladder and bowel control and sexual function. A spinal cord injury to the neck can result in breathing difficulty often requires employment of a breathing machine or ventilator.
A spinal cord injury is a medical emergency. The faster the patient receives treatment, the better the chances of recovery. The first step is for the doctors to obtain a medical history containing details surrounding the time of the injury. Other useful details could encompass any prior neck or back injuries or surgeries, the existence of pain in the neck or back, weakness or loss of sensation in any limbs, loss of bowel or bladder function or any previous medical condition. During the examination the patient may be kept in a cervical collar or on a backboard while the physician determines the presence of a spinal cord injury.
Following the physical examination, x-rays of the neck of the back are often taken to help identify any fracture or dislocation of the vertebrae. It is possible to have a spinal cord injury without an injury to the vertebrae.
More advanced imagery is helpful to give the physician a better view of the vertebrae such as a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The MRI is superior in evaluating the soft tissues including the ligaments, intervertebral discs, nerves and spinal cord. The MRI can also reveal injuries within the spinal cord.
Treatment for Spinal Cord Injury
Following a spinal cord injury the patient may be treated with a high dose of steroids. This is used to decrease the amount of inflammation and swelling, therefore reducing the amount of damage. The physician can decide if steroids are appropriate as there are risks involved.
The patient may also be placed in traction or a halo device around the head in an attempt to stabilize the spine and prevent further injury. Surgery may also be used to reduce pressure on the spinal cord or add stability. These are the two majors goals of surgery.
The primary goal is to relieve any pressure on the spinal cord. Portions of the vertebrae that are broken and are compressing the spinal cords may be removed. Surgery can also be used to reduce pressure from any tumors, infection or severe arthritis.
The secondary goal of spinal cord surgery is to stabilize the spine. Any weakened vertebrae may not be capable of supporting the normal body weight and protecting the spinal cords. The vertebrae may be held together and stabilized by the use of a combination of metal screws, rods and plates until the bones heal.
Following the initial treatment and stabilization, patients with a spinal cord injury enter rehabilitation programs. Included are methods to aid in the maximization of function though physical and occupational therapy as well as the use of assistive devices.
Timely treatment through surgical decompression and stabilization leads to better recovery. Recovery is also maximized though aggressive physical therapy and rehabilitation. The majority of recovery happens within the first six months. Any loss of function remaining after 12 months is likely to be permanent.
It is important for victims of spinal cord injury to maintain a positive outlook while integrating back into society. The rate of depression, divorce and substance abuse are unfortunately greater among people with spinal cord injuries. Many support groups are available to help.
At present there is no cure for spinal cord injury. There have been many promising advancements in research into spinal cord injury particularly stem cell technology. It is the hope of many doctors and scientists that a cure will be attained soon.
Spinal Cord Injury Attorney
If you or a loved one suffered a spinal cord injury in an accident, you should seek the counsel of an experienced spinal cord injury attorney. You may be entitled to compensation for lost income past and future, medical bills, loss of consortium, pain and suffering, physical rehabilitation and more. Contact a spinal cord injury attorney at Vititoe Law Group today at 1-818-851-1886 for a free consultation. No recovery – no fee.