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 disease of the nearby bones, tissues, or blood vessels.

Alternative Names

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

Causes

The spinal cord contains nerve fibers and cells. These nerve fibers carry messages between your brain and body. The spinal cord is located in the spinal canal of your spine in your neck, chest, and back down to the first lumbar vertebra.

Spinal cord injury (SCI) can be caused by any of the following:

A minor injury can damage the spinal cord. Conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, infection, cancer, or osteoporosis can weaken the spine, which normally protects the spinal cord. Injury can also occur if the spinal canal protecting the spinal cord has become too narrow (spinal stenosis). This occurs during normal aging.

Direct injury or damage to the spinal cord can occur due to:

Bleeding, fluid buildup, infection, and swelling can occur inside the spinal canal. This can press on the spinal cord and damage it.

Most high impact SCIs, such as from motor vehicle collisions or sports injuries, are seen in healthy people.

Risk factors include:

Low impact SCI often occurs in older adults from falls while standing or sitting. Injury is due to a weakened spine from aging or bone loss (osteoporosis) or spinal stenosis.

Symptoms

Symptoms vary, depending on the location of the injury. SCI causes weakness and loss of feeling at, and below the injury. The severity of the symptoms depends on whether the entire cord is injured (complete) or only partially injured (incomplete).

An injury below the first lumbar vertebra does not cause SCI. But it may cause cauda equina syndrome, which is an injury to the nerve roots in the lower spine. Many spinal cord injuries and cauda equina syndrome cases are medical emergencies and need surgery right away.

Injuries of the spinal cord at any level can cause:

CERVICAL (NECK) INJURIES

When spinal cord injuries are in the neck area, symptoms can affect the arms, legs, and middle of the body. The symptoms:

THORACIC (CHEST LEVEL) INJURIES

When spinal injuries are at chest level, symptoms can affect the legs. Injuries to the cervical or high thoracic spinal cord may also result in:

LUMBAR OR SACRAL (LOWER BACK) INJURIES

When spinal injuries are at the lower back level, symptoms can affect one or both legs. Muscles that control the bowels and bladder can also be affected. Spine injuries can damage the spinal cord if they are at the upper portion of the lumbar spine or the lumbar and sacral nerve roots (cauda equina) if they are at the lower lumbar spine.

Exams and Tests

SCI is a medical emergency that needs medical attention right away.

The health care provider will perform a physical exam, including a brain and nervous system (neurological) exam. This will help identify the exact location of the injury if it is not known.

Some of the reflexes may be abnormal or missing. Once swelling goes down, some reflexes may slowly recover.

Tests that may be ordered include:

Treatment

An SCI needs to be treated right away in most instances. The time between the injury and treatment can affect the outcome.

Medicines called corticosteroids are sometimes used in the first few hours after SCI to reduce swelling that may damage the spinal cord.

If spinal cord pressure can be relieved or reduced before the spinal nerves are completely destroyed, paralysis may improve.

Surgery may be needed to:

Bed rest may be needed to allow the bones of the spine to heal.

Spinal traction may be suggested. This can help keep the spine from moving. The skull may be held in place with tongs. These are metal braces placed in the skull and attached to weights or to a harness on the body (halo vest). You may need to wear the spine braces or a cervical collar for many months.

The health care team will also tell you what to do for muscle spasms and bowel and bladder dysfunction. They will also teach you how to care for your skin and protect it from pressure sores.

You will probably need physical therapy, occupational therapy, and other rehabilitation programs after the injury has healed. Rehabilitation will help you cope with the disability from your SCI.

You might need blood thinners to prevent blood clots in your legs or medicine to prevent infections such as urinary tract infections. 

Support Groups

Seek out organizations for additional information on SCI. They can provide support as you recover.

Outlook (Prognosis)

How well a person does depends on the level and severity of injury. Injuries in the upper (cervical) spine lead to more disability than injuries in the lower (thoracic or lumbar) spine.

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

A person who recovers some movement or feeling within 1 week usually 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 often takes 1 hour or more each day. Most people with SCI must perform bladder catheterization regularly.

The person's home will usually need to be modified.

Most people with SCI are in a wheelchair or need assistive devices to get around.

Research in the field of spinal cord injury is ongoing, and promising discoveries are being reported.

Possible Complications

The following are possible complications of SCI:

People living at home with SCI should do the following to prevent complications:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Contactyour provider if you have a back or neck injury. Call 911 or the local emergency number if you lose movement or feeling. This is a medical emergency.

Managing SCI begins at the site of an accident or injury. Trained paramedics immobilize the injured spine to prevent further nervous system damage.

Someone who may have a SCI should not be moved unless they are in immediate danger.

Prevention

The following measures may help prevent SCIs:

References

Levi AD. Spinal cord injury. In: Vincent J-L, Abraham E, Moore FA, Kochanek PM, Fink MP, eds. Textbook of Critical Care. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 57.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Spinal cord injury: hope through research. www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/patient-caregiver-education/hope-through-research/spinal-cord-injury-hope-through-research#3233. Updated July 25, 2022. Accessed August 26, 2022.

Sherman AL, Dalal KL. Spinal cord injury rehabilitation. In: Garfin SR, Eismont FJ, Bell GR, Fischgrund JS, Bono CM, eds. Rothman-Simeone and Herkowitz's The Spine. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 82.

Yokota K, Wang S, Singh JM, Fehlings MG. Medical management of spinal cord injury. In: Winn HR, ed. Youmans and Winn Neurological Surgery. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2023:chap 336.


Review Date: 4/22/2022
Reviewed By: Luc Jasmin, MD, PhD, FRCS (C), FACS, Department of Surgery, Johnson City Medical Center, Johnson City, TN; Department of Surgery Holston Valley Medical Center, Kingsport, TN; Department of Surgery St-Alexius Medical Center, Bismarck, ND; Department of Neurosurgery UPMC Williamsport PA, Department of Maxillofacial Surgery at UCSF, San Francisco, CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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