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Spinal cord trauma

Definition

Spinal cord trauma is damage to the spinal cord. It may result from direct injury to the cord itself or indirectly from damage to surrounding bones, tissues, or blood vessels.

Alternative Names

Spinal cord injury; Compression of spinal cord; SCI; Cord compression

Causes

Spinal cord trauma can be caused by any number of injuries to the spine. They can result from motor vehicle accidents, falls, sports injuries (particularly diving into shallow water), industrial accidents, gunshot wounds, assault, and other causes.

A minor injury can cause spinal cord trauma if the spine is weakened (such as from rheumatoid arthritis or osteoporosis) or if the spinal canal protecting the spinal cord has become too narrow (spinal stenosis) due to the normal aging process.

Direct injury, such as cuts, can occur to the spinal cord, particularly if the bones or the disks have been damaged. Fragments of bone (for example, from broken vertebrae, which are the spine bones) or fragments of metal (such as from a traffic accident or gunshot) can cut or damage the spinal cord.

Direct damage can also occur if the spinal cord is pulled, pressed sideways, or compressed. This may occur if the head, neck, or back are twisted abnormally during an accident or injury.

Bleeding, fluid accumulation, and swelling can occur inside the spinal cord or outside the spinal cord (but within the spinal canal). The accumulation of blood or fluid can compress the spinal cord and damage it.

Most spinal cord trauma happens to young, healthy individuals. Men ages 15 - 35 are most commonly affected. The death rate tends to be higher in young children with spinal injuries.

Risk factors include participating in risky physical activities, not wearing protective gear during work or play, or diving into shallow water.

Older people with weakened spines (from osteoporosis) may be more likely to have a spinal cord injury. Patients who have other medical problems that make them prone to falling from weakness or clumsiness (from stroke, for example) may also be more susceptible.

Symptoms

Symptoms vary somewhat depending on the location of the injury. Spinal cord injury causes weakness and sensory loss at and below the point of the injury. The severity of symptoms depends on whether the entire cord is severely injured (complete) or only partially injured (incomplete).

The spinal cord doesn't go below the 1st lumbar vertebra, so injuries at and below this level do not cause spinal cord injury. However, they may cause "cauda equina syndrome" -- injury to the nerve roots in this area.

CERVICAL (NECK) INJURIES

When spinal cord injuries occur in the neck area, symptoms can affect the arms, legs, and middle of the body. The symptoms may occur on one or both sides of the body. Symptoms can include:

  • Breathing difficulties (from paralysis of the breathing muscles, if the injury is high up in the neck)
  • Loss of normal bowel and bladder control (may include constipation, incontinence, bladder spasms)
  • Numbness
  • Sensory changes
  • Spasticity (increased muscle tone)
  • Pain
  • Weakness, paralysis

THORACIC (CHEST LEVEL) INJURIES

When spinal injuries occur at chest level, symptoms can affect the legs:

  • Loss of normal bowel and bladder control (may include constipation, incontinence,
  • bladder spasms)
  • Numbness
  • Sensory changes
  • Spasticity (increased muscle tone)
  • Pain
  • Weakness, paralysis

Injuries to the cervical or high thoracic spinal cord may also result in blood pressure problems, abnormal sweating, and trouble maintaining normal body temperature.

LUMBAR SACRAL (LOWER BACK) INJURIES

When spinal injuries occur at the lower back level, varying degrees of symptoms can affect one or both legs, as well as the muscles that control your bowels and bladder:

  • Loss of normal bowel and bladder control (you may have constipation, leakage, and bladder spasms)
  • Numbness
  • Pain
  • Sensory changes
  • Spasticity (increased muscle tone)
  • Weakness and paralysis

Exams and Tests

Spinal cord injury is a medical emergency requiring immediate attention.

The health care provider will perform a physical exam, including a neurological exam. This will help identify the exact location of the injury, if it is not already known. Some of the person's reflexes may be abnormal or absent. Once swelling goes down, some reflexes may slowly recover.

The following tests may be ordered:

  • A CT scan or MRI of the spine may show the location and extent of the damage and reveal problems such as blood clots (hematomas).
  • Myelogram (an x-ray of the spine after injection of dye) may be necessary in rare cases.
  • Somatosensory evoked potential (SSEP) testing or magnetic stimulation may show if nerve signals can pass through the spinal cord.
  • Spine x-rays may show fracture or damage to the bones of the spine.

Treatment

A spinal cord trauma is a medical emergency requiring immediate treatment to reduce the long-term effects. The time between the injury and treatment is a critical factor affecting the eventual outcome.

Corticosteroids, such as dexamethasone or methylprednisolone, are used to reduce swelling that may damage the spinal cord. If spinal cord compression is caused by a mass (such as a hematoma or bony fragment) that can be removed or reduced your spinal nerves are completely destroyed, paralysis may improve. Ideally, corticosteroids should begin as soon as possible after the injury.

Surgery may be needed to:

  • Remove fluid or tissue that presses on the spinal cord (decompression laminectomy)
  • Remove bone fragments, disk fragments, or foreign objects
  • Fuse broken spinal bones or place spinal braces

Bedrest may be needed to allow the bones of the spine, which bears most of the weight of the body, to heal.

Spinal traction may be recommended. This can help keep the spine from moving. The skull may be held in place with tongs (metal braces placed in the skull and attached to traction weights or to a harness on the body). The spine braces may need to be worn for a long time.

The health care team will also provide information on muscle spasms, care of the skin, and bowel and bladder dysfunction.

Extensive physical therapy, occupational therapy, and other rehabilitation therapies are often required after the acute injury has healed. Rehabilitation helps the person cope with disability that results from spinal cord injury.

Muscle spasticity can be relieved with medications taken by mouth or injected into the spinal canal. Botox injections into the muscles may also be helpful. Pain killers (analgesics), muscle relaxers, and physical therapy are used to help control pain.

See also:

Support Groups

For organizations that provide support and additional information, see spinal injury resources.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Paralysis and loss of sensation of part of the body are common. This includes total paralysis or numbness and varying degrees of movement or sensation loss. Death is possible, particularly if there is paralysis of the breathing muscles.

How well a person does depends on the level of injury. Injuries near the top of the spine result in more extensive disability than do injuries low in the spine.

Recovery of some movement or sensation within 1 week usually means the person has a good chance of recovering more function, although this may take 6 months or more. Losses that remain after 6 months are more likely to be permanent.

Routine bowel care frequently takes one hour or more on a daily basis.

A majority of people with spinal cord injury must perform bladder catheterization from time to time.

Modifications of the person's living environment are usually required.

Most people with spinal cord injury are wheelchair- or bed-bound, or have impaired mobility requiring a variety of assistive devices.

Possible Complications

The following are possible complications of a spinal cord injury:

People living at home with spinal cord injury should do the following to prevent complications:

  • Daily pulmonary care, for those who need it.
  • Follow all instructions regarding bladder care to avoid infections and damage to the kidneys.
  • Follow all instructions regarding routine wound care to avoid pressure sores.
  • Keep immunizations up to date.
  • Maintain routine health visits with their doctor.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if injury to the back or neck occurs. Call 911 if there is any loss of movement or sensation. This is a medical emergency!

Management of spinal cord injury begins at the site of an accident with paramedics trained in immobilizing the injured spine to prevent further damage to the nervous system.

Someone suspected of having a spinal cord injury should NOT be moved without immobilization unless there is an immediate threat.

Prevention

Safety practices during work and recreation can prevent many spinal cord injuries. Use proper protective equipment if an injury is possible.

Diving into shallow water is a major cause of spinal cord trauma. Check the depth of water before diving, and look for rocks or other possible obstructions.

Football and sledding injuries often involve sharp blows or abnormal twisting and bending of the back or neck and can result in spinal cord trauma. Use caution when sledding and inspect the area for obstacles. Use appropriate techniques and equipment when playing football or other contact sports.

Falls while climbing at work or during recreation can result in spinal cord injuries. Defensive driving and wearing seat belts greatly reduces the risk of serious injury if there is an automobile accident.

References

Evans RW, Wilberger JE, Bhatia S. Traumatic disorders. In: Goetz CG, ed. Textbook of Clinical Neurology. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 51.

Ling GSF. Traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 422.

Tator CH. Recognition and management of spinal cord injuries in sports and recreation. Neurol Clin. 2008 Feb;26(1):79-88; viii.


Review Date: 6/16/2010
Reviewed By: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc., and Daniel B. Hoch, PhD, MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School, Department of Neurology, Massachusetts General Hospital.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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