Definition & Overview

The spinal cord is the main communication pathway between the brain and various parts of the body. As part of the central nervous system, it plays an important role in ensuring that the brain effectively controls the organs and limbs.

The spinal cord is made up of millions of nerves and soft tissue. It is located within the vertebral column and the bony structure provides the strongest level of protection. Additionally, a fluid called the cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) surrounds the spinal cord to prevent it from being damaged by the vertebral column.

These layers of protection are more than adequate in an ideal environment. However, certain types of injuries can damage the spinal cord, which can result in a variety of complications, some of them permanent and life threatening. The nerves of the spinal cord exit the formation from two locations. The nerves that exit from the upper section are responsible for carrying information to the neck, arms, and the muscles and organs that control breathing. Meanwhile, the nerves that exit the mid and lower section control the back, lower extremities, bladder, bowel, and sexual organs. One or more of these organs can be affected depending on the location and severity of the damage.

Cause of Condition

Spinal cord disorders can be caused by traumatic and non-traumatic injuries. Traumatic injuries are defined as those caused by a direct hit to the spinal column, which damages the spinal cord at a certain location. This can be a blow from a blunt object, a laceration from a sharp-edged object, or a puncture wound from a gunshot.

Non-traumatic injuries, on the other hand, are a direct result of a disease or congenital malformation. Some of the most common are tumors, autoimmune diseases, degenerative diseases, inflammatory diseases, and infections.

Some spinal cord disorders develop over time while others have a sudden and immediate effect.

Key Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of traumatic injuries to the spinal cord are often immediate. Some of the most common are the loss of movement and/or sensation in the limbs, loss of bladder and bowel control, spasms, difficulty breathing, pain or a tingling sensation, and changes in sexual function.

If the injury is severe, the patient may also experience extreme back pains, weakness and reduced coordination, paralysis of any part of the body, and impaired breathing. Injuries to the spinal cord are often classified as complete or incomplete. An injury is termed complete if all sensation and ability to move are lost. If some areas retain a bit of sensation, the injury is termed as incomplete.

If paralysis occurs, it will be referred to as tetraplegia (all the organs, trunk, and limbs are affected) or paraplegia (some parts of the trunk, organs, and limbs are affected).

Who to See & Types of Treatment Available

If you’re involved in an accident that may have affected your spinal cord, it is best to remain still and wait for emergency medical services. If you believe that your spinal cord may have been affected by an underlying medical condition, it’s best to consult your primary care physician.

People who are involved in an accident will be taken directly to a hospital’s emergency room. Other than checking for obvious signs of injuries to the whole body, the doctor will also inspect the spinal column carefully to check for signs and symptoms of damage.

If the patient displays such signs or is unable to respond to the doctor’s questions, he or she will undergo emergency diagnostic tests to determine the extent of the damage. Such tests include a CT-scan, x-ray, and MRI. However, these tests will only show the patient’s immediate condition. Other signs of damage will only be visible after the swelling subsides.

Once the patient is in a stable condition and any swelling has subsided, a neurological exam will be conducted to determine the full extent of the injury. A neurological exam will include checking for muscle strength and sensation in different parts of the body.

It’s important to understand that the effects of a spinal cord injury cannot be reversed. However, treatment can prevent the condition from worsening and affecting other parts of the body.

If the injury to the spinal cord is a result of a certain disease, the underlying condition must be treated. Some diseases may not have a cure, but most can be prevented from worsening by controlling the symptoms.

References:

  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "NINDS Spinal Cord Injury Information Page."

  • National Spinal Cord Injury Association.

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