Spinal cord injuries are potentially debilitating and incapacitating injuries that require immediate emergency medical attention.
Types of Spinal Cord Injury
Spinal cord injuries come in two types. A complete injury is when all sensation and ability to control movement in the affected area is gone. With an incomplete injury, you may retain some ability to feel or move the affected portion of the body.
Causes of Spinal Cord Injury
Motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of spinal cord injuries. According to Mayo Clinic, they make up nearly half of such injuries each year.
Falls are also causes for spinal cord injuries, but usually only cause them in the elderly. Falls are the most common cause of spinal cord injuries for people over the age of 65. Spinal cord injuries are more common among people with osteoporosis or arthritis.
Violence is also a cause of spinal cord injuries. Knife and gunshot wounds to the spinal area can cause a spinal cord injury.
Sports are a common cause of spinal cord injuries, especially contact sports. Accidents during sports such as falling while rock climbing, or diving into water that is too shallow can cause a spinal cord injury.
Industrial accidents may cause spinal cord injuries at the workplace, especially if safety protocols are not observed.
Some diseases can cause damage to the spinal cord, including cancers.
The overwhelming majority of spinal cord injuries happen to men. Male propensity for sports, violence, and reckless behavior are the likely contributing factors for this.
Signs and Symptoms of Spinal Cord Injury
Spinal cord injuries have a number of possible signs and symptoms.
- Loss of movement.
- Loss of sensation, including heat, cold, pain, or touch.
- Loss of control over the bladder or bowels.
- Loss of sexual functioning.
- Difficulty breathing
- Intense pain at the site of the injury.
- Feelings of tingling in extremities.
- Victims may experience what is called “spinal shock,” which is a sudden loss of reflexes in the affected area. The reflexes may slowly return.
What to Do in the Case of Spinal Cord Injury
If you suspect that a person has a spinal cord injury, call 911 immediately.
It is a good rule of thumb to assume that a person with a severe injury to the torso or neck has a spinal cord injury until proven otherwise. The risks of presuming otherwise are too great to not treat such an injury as a potential spinal cord injury.
Do not move the injured individual unless you are in a dangerous situation. Movement is likely to make spinal cord injuries worse. Keep them still if at all possible.
Have the injured person hold their neck still. You can place rolled up towels or similar items by their head to prevent movement.
Provide first aid if you are able until emergency assistance arrives. Work to stop bleeding to the best of your ability.
How Is a Spinal Injury Treated?
Spinal Injuries require a sophisticated team of medical professionals who are able to work with a patient to provide care for an extended period of time in a hospital setting. There is no singular way in which a spinal cord injury is treated as there are many ways in which the spinal cord can be injured. A bruised spine, for example, is likely to be treated differently than an injury in which the spinal cord is severed.
Unfortunately, there is no way to regenerate spinal tissue, meaning that much of the treatment is geared toward helping maintain as much function as possible. Prompt initial treatments as well as physical therapy during recovery can help preserve or regain physical functioning.
However, there are some general things to expect after most injuries. Doctors will likely use X-rays, CT scans, or MRI’s to directly image the injury. It is likely that surgery will be done on the patient in order to help alleviate the injury itself, especially if one or more of the vertebrae are broken. Patients can expect a number of treatments and medications, and may be hooked up to a ventilator. Feeding tubes and bladder catheters may be used to help patients with feeding and defecation.
Depression after a Spinal Cord Injury
It is common for depression to be part of the ongoing health effects of a spinal cord injury. Almost everyone mourns the loss of their previous life. This is a perfectly normal and healthy way to cope with the injury.
Some people may fall into a long-term depression. It is important in these cases that the patient have access to psychiatric and therapeutic care. Mental health professionals can assist patients who have long-term depression so that they can cultivate a positive outlook and emotional wellbeing.
Many people with spinal cord injuries are able to achieve a high quality of life as well as a high degree of independence and freedom. Part of the recovery process is teaching patients not only how to adjust but also strategies to help them be as self-sufficient as possible.