What to know about spinal cord injuries

What to know about spinal cord injuries

The spinal cord is a column of nerve tissue that runs from the base of the skull down the center of the back, according to the National Cancer Institute. This highway of nerves transmits messages from the brain to the remainder of the body, controlling many of its functions. Like any other part of your body, it too can become injured either temporarily or permanently. And it can have serious effects.

According to the United Spinal Association, a spinal cord injury may result in changes in the normal motor, sensory or autonomic functions of the body, and there are about 17,000 new spinal cord injuries each year in the United States.

“Motor vehicle crashes, falls, various sports or recreation activities, diving accidents and violent acts are some of the common causes of spinal cord injuries,” says Dr. Zachary Jaffa, a neurosurgeon at Aurora Health Care. “There are also infections, tumors and other diseases that can cause similar damage to the spinal cord.”

Some of the signs of spinal cord injuries, among other symptoms include:
  • Pain or pressure in the back, neck or head
  • Decreased movement or paralysis that develops immediately or over time
  • Lack of coordination
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Tingling, numbness or altered feeling in extremities
  • Loss of or altered feeling of sensations with heat, cold and touch

“There are varying degrees of severity of spinal cord injury which often largely depends on where the injury occurred in the spinal cord and the nature of the injury,” Dr. Jaffa says. “If a traumatic accident has just occurred or you are experiencing any symptoms of weakness, abnormal sensation, bowel or bladder dysfunction, it is imperative to have timely evaluation and care to treat or prevent neurologic deficits.”

Spinal cord injuries are diagnosed through a combination of clinical examination, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computerized tomography (CT) or x-ray imaging. Treatment depends on the type of injury and may involve physical therapy or other non-surgical or surgical options.

Spinal cord injuries are delicate matters. Time is of the essence and can affect outcome and recovery, so it’s critical to assume that someone who has major head or neck trauma has a spinal injury until learning otherwise.

If you believe someone has a back or neck trauma following a traumatic situation:
  • Do not move the person and keep them still until emergency medical personnel arrive
  • Call 911
  • Cushion both sides of the head or neck or hold them to immobilize them and prevent movement
  • Give basic first aid while keeping the head or neck still until medical attention arrives

Are you having back or neck problems? Take a free online quiz to learn more.

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About the Author

Hannah Koerner
Hannah Koerner

Hannah Koerner is a Public Affairs Specialist with Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Communication from the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. In her free time, she enjoys biking, snowshoeing, and cheering on Wisconsin sports teams.