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What are the Causes & Symptoms of Spinal Cord Injuries? SCI Day

What are the Causes & Symptoms of Spinal Cord Injuries? SCI Day

What is a Spinal Cord Injury?


A spinal cord is termed as a bundle of nerves responsible for transmitting messages from the brain to the rest of the body parts. The spinal cord plays a crucial role in maintaining a person’s ability to feel and manage various body parts like arms, bladder, legs, and hands.

A spinal cord injury is what we call acute or chronic damage to a person’s spinal cord. This falls under the category of serious physical trauma that can have a significant effect on a person’s mobility, daily life, and routine activities. A spinal cord injury can be caused by falls, accidents, and a result of certain diseases.

The severity of a spinal cord injury is determined by two factors; the area in the spinal cord where the injury occurred and the extent of damage caused. All these factors combined translate into how an injured person’s life is affected.

Unfortunately, once occurred, there is no cure for spinal cord injury. However, rehabilitation services and certain adaptive devices help gain higher control over the body parts and improve their quality of life to a greater extent.


Causes of Spinal Cord Injury


Spinal cord injury isn’t that common and is often the result of any unexpected trauma, sudden violent attack, or an accident. Let’s visit a few causes of spinal cord injury that end up causing damage to the spinal cord:

  • Stabbing, gunshot, or another unexpected violent attack
  • Deep diving into a pool with low water levels or hitting the bottom of the pool
  • Trauma inflicted to the head, neck, chest, face, and back region during a car accident
  • Head or spinal cord injuries occurred during strenuous sporting events
  • History of fall from a significant height
  • Accidents caused due to exposure to electrical current
  • Certain types of cancer
  • Arthritis
  • Certain infection types
  • Certain medical conditions like spina bifida or polio
  • Extreme twist in the torso or middle portion of the body


Spinal Cord Injury Symptoms


A spinal cord injury symptom may vary from one person to the other depending upon the type, cause, and severity of the condition. Anyone suffering from a spinal cord injury should immediately seek a doctor’s examination if suffering from any of the following spinal cord injury symptoms:

  • Excruciating pain in the head, neck, or back
  • Immobility or weakness while walking
  • Breathing difficulty or shallow breathing
  • Having trouble maintaining body’s balance and coordination
  • Felling of numbness or tingling sensation in the lower extremities of the body
  • Poor bladder control or bowel movements
  • Shock-like symptoms
  • Headache
  • Unnatural head positioning
  • Muscle spasms that tend to get worsen with time
  • Reduced libido or sexual desires
  • Infertility


Spinal Cord Injury Risk Factors


Anyone, at any age, can get affected by spinal cord injuries. Though a majority of spinal cord injuries are accidental and unpredictable, there are certain factors that increase the occurrence of such injuries. Here are those factors stated by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons:

  • One of the most prominent causes of spinal cord injury inflicted on younger people is automobile accidents.
  • Forth elderly people, above the age of 60-65 years, fall is one of the most common causes of spinal cord injury.
  • About 90% of sports-inflicted spinal cord injuries happen in males compared to females.

Also, the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center states that 43 years is the average age where most people get spinal cord injuries in their lifetime. Amongst new cases of spinal cord injuries, 78% of them are males. Further, vehicular accidents are one of the most common causes of spinal cord injury standing at nearly 40% followed closely by falls.


Types of Spinal Cord Injury


Spinal cord injuries can be classified into different types and it’s only the treating doctor that can distinguish them into complete and incomplete injuries. A complete injury means where the injured person loses total control over the feeling and control of the extremities. Whereas, in the case of an incomplete spinal cord injury, the injured person still has some control over the affected areas.

The type of spinal cord injury is also determined by the location of the injury. A spinal cord has four sections:

  • Cervical Spine (vertebrae C1 - C7)
  • Thoracic spine (vertebrae T1 – T12)
  • Lumbar Spine (vertebrae L1 – L5)
  • Sacral Spine (vertebrae S1 – S5)


Injuries affecting the above spinal cord locations are termed cervical/thoracic/lumbar/sacral spine injuries. Since each of these sections controls some or the other parts of the body, the location of the injury determines the extent and areas getting damaged.


Spinal Cord Injury Complications


A spinal cord injury, depending on the extent of severity and damage, can pose numerous complications and end up affecting a person’s day-to-day functioning. Most commonly seen and reported complications of spinal cord injury include:


  • Loss of Bladder/or Bowel Control

Since a spinal cord injury significantly affects the injured person’s bladder/or bowel movement, it becomes crucial for them to learn how to empty their bladders completely when they can’t feel the urge to do that.


  • Loss of Muscle Tone

Spinal cord injury causes the affected person an inability to move or use their arms and legs. This further causes the muscles to shrink and get weaker over time. The affected person’s physical fitness also gets badly affected due to immobility.


  • Frequent & Painful Muscle Spasms

One of the most commonly observed and diagnosed complications of spinal cord injury is muscle spasms. This leads to a contraction in muscles, uncontrolled muscle movements, and spasticity.


  • Long-term Nerve Pain

Long-term nerve pain is yet another common complication in most spinal cord injury patients. The nerve pain can go on affecting areas with no to little sensation.


  • Unnoticed Skin Sores & Injuries

Since a spinal cord injury may end up causing a significant or total loss of feeling in the affected area, any cuts or injuries sustained there may go unnoticed by the patient. It is highly advised to all the patients afflicted with spinal cord injuries to keep checking the affected areas constantly for any signs of cuts or injuries to prevent infections.


  • Lung Problems

Since a patient with spinal cord injury isn’t able to cough properly, they are likely to develop pneumonia easily as they can’t clear their lungs.


  • Blood Clots, Stroke & Cardiac Arrest

Spinal cord injuries may cause the blood pressure to get too low or high which may increase the chances of developing blood clots and swelling. With some of spinal cord injuries, the blood pressure may get extremely high causing a cardiac arrest or stroke.


  • Obesity & Mental Health

A spinal cord injury causes immobility leaving the person with lesser physical movements than before. This eventually builds up the affected person to gain more weight over time. While women can develop infertility as a result of spinal cord injury, it can lead to difficulty in ejaculation in males.


Treatment & Recovery for Spinal Cord Injury


Treatment regime and time for recovery in patients with spinal cord injuries depend largely on the type of injury, severity, the extent of damage, and other related factors. Basis on the evaluation by the medical experts, your treating doctor will chalk out a treatment plan and a tentative recovery time frame to avoid possible complications.

One of the standard treatments for spinal cord injuries is surgery where it becomes necessary to avert the risk of further damage. The type of surgery required solely depends on the type of injury.

In some cases, including post-operative ones, rehabilitation, physical, and occupational therapy plays a critical role. Some cases require ongoing physical therapy sessions to help them maintain their physical strength and regain mobility. A combination of the above therapies is crucial in improving the overall quality of life in most patients. Counselling and psychotherapy come in handy to help patients with emotional trauma and mental health issues.


Parting Thoughts


A spinal cord injury can have a life-altering effect on the injured person and it gets challenging for them to cope with it. People with spinal cord injuries can regain their access to leading a rewarding and routine life with help of a timely diagnosis, the right treatment plan, and support from friends and family.

Dr. Rajneesh Kachhara
Meet The Doctor
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