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Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord injuries can be a traumatic experience for patients and their families. Doctors at MaineHealth provide the highest level of expertise in evaluating and treating spinal cord injuries. Patients can be assured they are receiving the best care.

What is a spinal cord injury?

A spinal cord injury involves damage to any part of the spinal cord or nerves at the end of the spinal canal. They often cause permanent changes in strength, sensation and other body functions below the site of the injury.

Spinal cord injuries can be complete or incomplete.

  • With a complete spinal cord injury, the cord can't send or receive signals below the level of the injury. As a result, the patient is paralyzed below the injury.
  • With an incomplete injury, there is some movement and sensation below the injury.

Spinal cord injury causes

Spinal cord injuries result from damage to the vertebrae, ligaments or disks of the spinal column or to the spinal cord itself. A traumatic spinal cord injury happens from a sudden, harsh blow to the spine that fractures, dislocates, crushes or compresses one or more of the vertebrae.

Some causes of spinal cord injuries include:

  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Falls
  • Sport and recreational activities
  • Diseases
  • Accidents

Spinal cord injury symptoms

Symptoms of spinal cord injuries depend on the seriousness of the injury and the area of the spinal cord affected. Some symptoms include:

  • Loss of movement
  • Loss of sensation, including the ability to feel heat, cold and touch
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Exaggerated reflex activities or spasms
  • Changes in sexual function, sexual sensitivity and fertility
  • Pain or an intense stinging sensation caused by damage to the nerve fibers in your spinal cord
  • Difficulty breathing, coughing or clearing secretions from your lungs

Emergency signs and symptoms of spinal cord injury

  • Extreme back pain or pressure in your neck, head or back
  • Weakness or paralysis in any part of your body
  • Numbness, tingling or loss of sensation in your hands, fingers, feet or toes
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Difficulty with balance and walking
  • Impaired breathing after injury
  • An oddly positioned or twisted neck or back

Spinal cord injury diagnosis

A spinal cord injury may be ruled out by a doctor in the emergency after careful inspection, evaluation and questioning about the injury.

If the patient isn't fully awake, or has obvious signs of weakness or neurological injury, emergency diagnostic tests may be needed. Some of these diagnostic tests include:

  • can reveal vertebral (spinal column) problems, tumors, fractures or degenerative changes in the spine.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan may provide a better look at abnormalities than seen on an X-ray. This scan uses computers to form a series of cross-sectional images that can define bone, disk and other problems.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to produce computer-generated images. This test is very helpful in looking at the spinal cord and identifying herniated disks, blood clots or other masses that may be compressing the spinal cord

Spinal cord injury treatment

Treatment for a spinal cord injury frequently begins at the scene of the injury to minimize any effects of head or neck trauma. Emergency medical personnel generally will immobilize the spine as gently and quickly as possible using a rigid neck collar and a rigid carrying board to transport the patient to the hospital. Some treatment methods for spinal cord injuries include:

  • Maintaining your ability to breathe
  • Preventing shock
  • Immobilization to stabilize the spine and prevent further injury
  • Avoiding possible complications, such as stool or urine retention, respiratory or cardiovascular difficulty and formation of deep vein blood clots in the extremities
  • Intravenous medications