Spinal Cord Injury

Overview

Your spinal cord connects your brain to the nerves in your body. Your ability to feel and move can be affected if the cord is injured, or if the bones, tissues or blood vessels around your spine are damaged. 

Car accidents, sports activities, diving into shallow water, falls or other traumatic events can cause a spinal cord injury. Damage may also be caused by another health condition – like osteoporosis, cancer, multiple sclerosis or arthritis.

Types

There are two types of spinal cord injuries:

  • Complete, which means you won’t be able to feel or move below the injury.
  • Incomplete, which means you’ll have some movement or sensation below the injury.

Symptoms

A spinal cord injury is always serious. But symptoms depend on how severe your injury is and where it’s located on your spine. 

You might experience: 

  • Loss of bowel and/or bladder control
  • Loss of movement (paralysis)
  • Muscle spasms
  • Numbness or loss of sensation (inability to feel heat, cold or touch)
  • Pain or intense stinging (indicating nerve damage along the spinal cord)
  • Stiff neck, headache or back pain

A spinal cord injury can be life threatening. Emergency symptoms include: 

  • Difficulty breathing 
  • Difficulty balancing or walking
  • Lack of alertness (semi-consciousness or unconsciousness)
  • Oddly positioned or twisted neck or back
  • Shock (pale skin, bluish lips and fingernails)

Diagnosis

Spinal cord injuries can become worse with time as bleeding or swelling develops around the spinal cord. It’s important to seek treatment immediately.

To diagnose your injury, your doctor will use a standardized neurological exam (developed by the American Spinal Injury Association), which includes testing your ability to move (motor skills) and your ability to feel (sensory skills), as well as an anal muscle test to determine whether the injury has affected the base of your spine. Other tests may include:

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or CT (computed tomography) scans to assess nerve and spinal column damage, blood clots or masses
  • X-ray scan to reveal vertebral (spinal) fractures, tumors or degeneration

Treatment Options

Treatment depends on the severity of your injury. Doctors will first work to stabilize your breathing and immobilize your neck to prevent further damage. After that, you may be admitted to a trauma center with specialized care for spinal cord injuries. 

Specialized care may include:

  • Immobilization: Traction, braces, harnesses and collars can stabilize your spine and stop you from moving. 
  • Medication: Corticosteroid drugs can reduce swelling.
  • Rehabilitation: Physical therapy and occupational therapy work to strengthen your muscles and help you relearn skills or techniques so you can become more independent. Therapy may begin while you’re in the hospital. It can continue as you transition to a rehabilitation center or an outpatient facility.
  • Surgery: In some cases, your doctor may need to remove fragments of bone or fractured vertebrae.

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When you have degenerative disc disease, the Aurora Back and Spine Program makes it easier for you to get back to the things that matter most. With a single entry point and your own care coordinator, you’ll be connected to an integrated team of specialists all working together on your personalized treatment plan. Learn more about our program locations in eastern Wisconsin:

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