Spinal Cord Injury (SCI)

  • Symptoms:

    Paralysis, loss of sensation, muscle spasms

  • Treatment:

    Surgery, rehabilitation, pain management, assistive devices

Spinal Cord Injury (SCI)

What Are Spinal Cord Injuries?

What Are Spinal Cord Injuries?

A spinal cord injury (SCI) occurs when there's damage to the spinal cord, which is a thick bundle of nerve fibers facilitating communication between the brain and other nerves throughout the body. Think of it as a vital component of the central nervous system (CNS) that functions like a multi-lane expressway connecting the brain to the rest of the body.

The spinal cord interfaces with spinal nerves, which act like on- and off-ramps connecting to peripheral nerves branching out to various parts of the body. Nerve signals are similar to cars traveling on this expressway, using these ramps for entry and exit.

When an SCI happens, it's like encountering closures on this expressway. However, there are no alternative routes. Nerve signals using the affected lanes can't reach their destinations. Depending on the severity of the injury, these closures can be temporary or permanent. Severe damage often leads to paralysis and other significant symptoms associated with SCI.

Types of Spinal Cord Injuries

Types of Spinal Cord Injuries

Spinal cord injuries can be classified into different types based on various factors, including the location and severity of the injury. Here are some common types:

By Location:

  1. Cervical Spinal Cord Injury: This occurs when the spinal cord is injured in the neck region (C1-C7 vertebrae). Injuries to this area can result in tetraplegia (paralysis of all four limbs) or partial paralysis, affecting the arms, hands, trunk, and legs.
  2. Thoracic Spinal Cord Injury: Injuries to the thoracic spine happen in the upper back region (T1-T12 vertebrae), stretching from the area just below the neck down to just below the navel (belly button).
  3. Lumbar Spinal Cord Injury: This type of injury occurs in the lumbar spine (L1-L5 vertebrae), situated in the lower back. It extends to approximately the top of where the buttocks meet, although the spinal cord itself ends a few inches above that point.
  4. Sacral Spinal Cord Injury: Injuries to the sacral spine happen in the lower back region (S1-S5 vertebrae) and involve nerve roots extending from below the buttocks to the tailbone.

By Severity:

  1. Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury: In an incomplete SCI, only some lanes of the "expressway" are affected, while others remain open. This means that certain abilities below the injury site may still be intact, although impaired.
  2. Complete Spinal Cord Injury: A complete SCI affects all lanes of the "expressway" and blocks messages from reaching their destination. This typically results in the permanent loss of all abilities below the injury, including paralysis and other significant impairments.
  3. Tetraplegia (Quadriplegia): This is a severe form of SCI characterized by paralysis of all four limbs and the trunk. It typically results from injuries to the cervical region of the spinal cord.
  4. Paraplegia: Paraplegia involves paralysis of the lower half of the body, including the legs and possibly parts of the trunk. It commonly occurs due to injuries to the thoracic, lumbar, or sacral regions of the spinal cord.
Spinal Cord Injury

Your spinal cord is made of 31 segments, each corresponding to the 31 pairs of spinal nerves. Experts utilize letter-number combinations to designate these segments, with the letter denoting the spine section and the number indicating the segment. For instance, C8 refers to the eighth (and lowermost) segment of the cervical spinal cord.

Spinal cord injuries often encompass various phases. The initial phase involves the primary injury. However, in the subsequent hours and days, a secondary injury may develop and lead to swelling and additional damage to the spinal cord.

How Common Are Spinal Cord Injuries?

How Common Are Spinal Cord Injuries?

Spinal cord injuries are relatively uncommon compared to other types of injuries, but they can have significant and lasting effects on individuals' lives. The exact prevalence of SCIs varies by region and population, but they’re generally considered rare compared to other types of traumatic injuries.

According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCISC) in the United States, the estimated annual incidence of spinal cord injury is approximately 18,000 new cases each year. This statistic includes both traumatic and non-traumatic causes of SCI.

Traumatic causes, such as motor vehicle accidents, falls, and sports injuries, account for the majority of SCIs. The latest estimate of the annual incidence of traumatic spinal cord injury (TSCI) in the United States is approximately 54 cases per one million people.

What Are the Symptoms of a Spinal Cord Injury?

The symptoms of a spinal cord injury can vary widely depending on the location, function, and severity of the injury. Here are some common symptoms:

Sensory Symptoms:

  1. Loss of Sensation: Individuals may experience partial or complete loss of sensation below the level of the injury. This can include loss of touch, pressure, temperature sensation, and proprioception (awareness of body position).
  2. Altered Sensation: Some people may experience abnormal sensations such as tingling, numbness, or hypersensitivity in areas below the injury site.
  3. Pain: Neuropathic pain, characterized by burning, shooting, or stabbing sensations, can occur both at the injury site and in areas below it. Chronic pain may also develop over time.

Motor Symptoms:

  1. Paralysis: Depending on the severity and location of the injury, individuals may experience partial or complete paralysis of muscles below the level of the injury. This can affect limbs, trunk muscles, and respiratory muscles.
  2. Muscle Weakness: Weakness or loss of muscle strength may occur in affected limbs or muscle groups.
  3. Spasticity: Some individuals may experience increased muscle tone and involuntary muscle contractions, leading to stiffness, spasms, or exaggerated reflexes.
  4. Loss of Coordination: Difficulties with balance, coordination, and fine motor skills may occur, affecting activities such as walking, grasping objects, or performing tasks that require precise movements.

Autonomic Symptoms:

  1. Difficulty Breathing: Spinal cord injuries, particularly those affecting the cervical region, can impair respiratory muscles, leading to difficulty breathing or respiratory failure.
  2. Loss of Bowel and Bladder Control: Disruption of nerve signals from the spinal cord can result in loss of voluntary control over bowel and bladder function, leading to urinary and fecal incontinence.
  3. Changes in Blood Pressure: Damage to the autonomic nervous system can cause fluctuations in blood pressure, leading to episodes of low blood pressure (hypotension) or autonomic dysreflexia, a potentially life-threatening condition characterized by dangerously high blood pressure.
  4. Sexual Dysfunction: Spinal cord injuries can affect sexual function and fertility and lead to changes in libido and erectile dysfunction.

What Can Cause a Spinal Cord Injury?

What Can Cause a Spinal Cord Injury?

SCIs can result from various causes, including traumatic and non-traumatic events. Here are some common causes:

  1. Traumatic Injuries:
    • Motor Vehicle Accidents: Car, motorcycle, and pedestrian accidents are leading causes of spinal cord injuries, often resulting from the impact of collisions.
    • Falls: Falls from heights, such as from ladders or stairs, can lead to spinal cord injuries, especially in older adults.
    • Sports and Recreational Activities: High-impact sports such as football, rugby, and diving can result in spinal cord injuries, particularly if proper safety precautions are not followed.
    • Violence: Gunshot wounds, knife injuries, and other acts of violence can cause severe spinal cord damage.
    • Industrial Accidents: Workplace accidents involving heavy machinery, falls, or construction equipment can lead to spinal cord injuries.
  2. Non-Traumatic Causes:
    • Disease and Infections: Conditions such as spinal tumors, spinal cord compression due to arthritis or degenerative disc disease, and infections such as meningitis or polio can damage the spinal cord.
    • Medical Procedures: Complications during surgical procedures on the spine or surrounding areas can lead to spinal cord injuries.
    • Non-Traumatic Compression: Prolonged pressure on the spinal cord due to conditions like spinal stenosis or herniated discs can cause damage over time.
    • Autoimmune Disorders: Conditions such as multiple sclerosis or transverse myelitis, where the immune system attacks the spinal cord, can result in spinal cord injuries.
    • Vascular Disorders: Reduced blood flow to the spinal cord due to conditions like stroke or aneurysm can lead to spinal cord damage.

What Are the Complications of Spinal Cord Injuries?

Spinal cord injuries can lead to various complications. Unfortunately, these may have significant impacts on an individual's physical, psychological, and social well-being. Some common complications include:

  1. Paralysis: One of the most significant complications of SCIs is paralysis, which can affect various parts of the body depending on the level and severity of the injury. Paralysis may result in loss of mobility and independence, requiring assistive devices or mobility aids for daily activities.
  2. Chronic Pain: Many individuals with SCIs experience chronic pain, including neuropathic pain (caused by nerve damage), musculoskeletal pain (related to changes in posture and movement), and secondary pain due to complications such as pressure sores or muscle spasms.
  3. Spasticity and Muscle Contractures: Spasticity, characterized by involuntary muscle contractions and increased muscle tone, is a common complication of SCIs. It can lead to stiffness, muscle spasms, and joint contractures, limiting mobility and causing discomfort.
  4. Pressure Sores (Pressure Ulcers): Reduced mobility and sensation increase the risk of developing pressure sores, especially in areas subjected to prolonged pressure or friction. Pressure sores can be painful, difficult to heal, and may lead to serious infections if left untreated.
  5. Respiratory Complications: SCIs affecting the cervical or thoracic regions may impair respiratory muscles, leading to difficulty breathing, reduced lung capacity, and increased susceptibility to respiratory infections such as pneumonia.
  6. Cardiovascular Issues: SCIs can disrupt autonomic nervous system function, leading to cardiovascular complications such as orthostatic hypotension (abnormally low blood pressure upon standing), autonomic dysreflexia (a potentially life-threatening condition characterized by a sudden increase in blood pressure), and increased risk of venous thromboembolism (blood clots).
  7. Psychological and Emotional Effects: Coping with the physical limitations, lifestyle changes, and emotional challenges associated with SCIs can lead to psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

How Are Spinal Cord Injuries Diagnosed?

How Are Spinal Cord Injuries Diagnosed?

Diagnosing a spinal cord injury usually involves a combination of medical history assessment, physical examination, and diagnostic imaging studies. Our team has provided an overview of the diagnostic process for SCIs:

  1. A thorough physical examination will be performed to assess neurological function, including muscle strength, sensation, reflexes, and coordination. Special attention will be given to signs of spinal cord injury, such as loss of sensation or motor function below the level of the injury.
  2. Diagnostic imaging studies, like X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
  3. In addition to the initial neurological examination, further assessment of neurological function may be conducted. Electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies may be performed to assess nerve function and identify nerve damage or abnormalities.
  4. Additional tests may be ordered based on clinical findings and concerns. These may include blood tests, such as a complete blood count (CBC), or tests to evaluate for signs of infection or inflammation.

How Are Spinal Cord Injuries Treated?

Treatment typically involves a combination of medical interventions, surgical procedures, rehabilitation therapies, and supportive care aimed at stabilizing the spine, minimizing further damage, and promoting recovery. Of course, the specific treatment approach depends on factors such as the severity, location, and type of injury, as well as individual patient needs.

  1. Emergency Care and Stabilization:
    • Immediate medical attention is crucial for individuals with suspected SCIs to prevent further damage and complications.
    • Emergency care may include immobilization of the spine using a cervical collar, backboard, or specialized immobilization devices to prevent movement and reduce the risk of spinal cord damage during transportation.
  2. Surgery:
    • Surgery may be needed to stabilize the spine, remove bone fragments or foreign objects, decompress the spinal cord, or repair damaged spinal structures.
    • Surgical procedures may include spinal fusion, laminectomy, discectomy, or insertion of spinal instrumentation such as rods, screws, or plates to stabilize the spine.
  3. Medical Management:
    • Medications may be prescribed to manage pain, reduce inflammation, prevent muscle spasms, and improve bladder and bowel function.
    • Corticosteroids such as methylprednisolone may be administered shortly after injury to reduce swelling and inflammation around the spinal cord, although their use is controversial due to potential side effects.
  4. Rehabilitation Therapy:
    • Rehabilitation plays a crucial role in optimizing functional outcomes and promoting independence for individuals with SCIs.
    • Physical therapy focuses on improving strength, flexibility, balance, and mobility through exercises and specialized equipment.
    • Occupational therapy helps individuals regain skills needed for activities of daily living (ADLs), such as dressing, grooming, and feeding.
    • Speech therapy may be recommended for individuals with swallowing difficulties or communication impairments.
    • Assistive devices and adaptive equipment, such as wheelchairs, braces, and mobility aids, may be prescribed to facilitate mobility and improve function.
  5. Psychological and Emotional Support:
    • Coping with the physical and emotional challenges of SCI can be challenging. Counseling, support groups, and mental health services can provide emotional support, address psychological issues such as depression and anxiety, and assist with adjustment to life changes.
  6. Lifestyle Modifications:
    • Lifestyle modifications may be necessary to accommodate changes in mobility, function, and accessibility. This may include home modifications, vocational rehabilitation, and education on injury prevention and self-care.
  7. Experimental Therapies and Clinical Trials:
    • Research into new treatments and therapies for SCIs, including stem cell therapy, nerve regeneration techniques, and neuroprotective agents, is ongoing. Participation in clinical trials may be an option for some individuals with SCI to explore novel treatments and contribute to scientific advancements.

Spinal Cord Injuries and Orthotics

Spinal Cord Injuries and Orthotics

Orthotic devices are integral to managing SCIs as they aim to enhance mobility, provide support, and prevent complications. In the context of SCIs, orthotics are used in a variety of scenarios and tailored to individual needs, helping in various aspects of rehabilitation and daily living. These roles include:

  • Stabilization: Orthotic spinal braces offer external support to stabilize the spine, reducing the risk of further injury during the acute phase of SCI.
  • Mobility Enhancement: Devices such as ankle-foot orthoses (AFOs) and knee-ankle-foot orthoses (KAFOs) improve lower limb function.
  • Pressure Relief: Orthotic cushions and positioning devices help prevent pressure ulcers and maintain skin integrity in individuals with limited mobility.
  • Functional Support: Splints and assistive devices help with hand function, upper extremity support, and activities of daily living.
  • Integration with Assistive Technologies: Orthotics can be combined with adaptive equipment and assistive technologies to enhance functional abilities and promote independence.

Overall, orthotic interventions are an integral component of the comprehensive care and rehabilitation of individuals with SCI. They help optimize function, mobility, and quality of life for those living with spinal cord injuries.

What’s the Outlook for Spinal Cord Injuries?

As you can imagine, the outlook for spinal cord injuries varies greatly depending on factors such as the severity, location, and extent of the injury, as well as individual factors like age, overall health, and access to medical care and rehabilitation.

  1. Severity of Injury: The severity of the spinal cord injury significantly impacts the prognosis. In general, individuals with incomplete injury (where some nerve function remains below the level of injury) tend to have better outcomes compared to those with complete spinal cord injury (where there is a total loss of function below the injury level).
  2. Location of Injury: The location of the spinal cord injury also plays a crucial role in determining the prognosis. Injuries higher up in the cervical spine (neck) typically result in more significant impairments, including tetraplegia (paralysis of all four limbs) and respiratory complications. In contrast, injuries in the thoracic, lumbar, or sacral regions may result in paraplegia (paralysis of the lower limbs) or less severe impairments.
  3. Rehabilitation: Rehabilitation is key to maximizing function, independence, and quality of life for individuals with SCIs. Access to comprehensive rehabilitation programs, including physical therapy, occupational therapy, and vocational rehabilitation, greatly influences long-term outcomes.
  4. Medical Advances: Advances in medical care, surgical techniques, and rehabilitation strategies have improved outcomes for individuals with SCIs in recent years. Research into neuroregeneration, stem cell therapy, and other innovative treatments offers hope for potential future advancements in SCI treatment and recovery.
  5. Psychological Support: Coping with the physical, emotional, and lifestyle changes associated with SCI can be challenging. Access to psychological support, counseling, and peer support groups can play an integral role in helping individuals and their families adjust to life with SCI and navigate the challenges they may face.

Overall, while SCIs can have significant and life-altering consequences, many individuals with SCIs can lead fulfilling and meaningful lives with proper medical care, rehabilitation, and support. The outlook for SCI continues to improve as advancements in research and treatment continue to evolve, offering hope for enhanced outcomes and improved quality of life for those living with spinal cord injuries.

Contact Our Local Prosthetics and Orthotics Provider in New Mexico

PrimeCare is located in Las Cruces but helps patients from Ciudad Juarez, El Paso, Albuquerque, and surrounding New Mexico areas. Experience our difference today for superior orthotic and prosthetic solutions tailored just for you.

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