An injury to the spinal cord can take many forms; they can be debilitating and painful to downright life shattering depending on the severity of the injury. A spinal cord injury is classified as any injury where the nerves at the end of the spinal canal, also known as the ‘cauda equine’ have been damaged in some degree. This can have ramifications on the entire rest of the body, its effects can be permanent, temporary or reoccurring. Even the simple act of lifting something heavy the wrong way can cause an injury which impacts the rest of your life, damaging your spine in even a minor way that your strength or ability to complete certain tasks is affected forever.
Recovery is Possible in some cases
Fortunately ,in recent years there have been some major breakthroughs in medical science when applied to spinal injuries. For some recovery is now possible when perhaps before it wasn’t and for those going through recovery this has helped them get their lives back on track quicker. Despite this newfound optimism, spinal injuries for many are still a catastrophic event that changes every aspect of a sufferers life. Other injuries are slightly more subtle and may not be immediately obvious when they initially happen, but there are symptoms than can help identify when damage to the back bone has occurred.
The most common symptoms are:
- Sudden or temporary loss of movement
- Loss or sensation, including being able to feel heat, cold and touch
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Exaggerated reflex feelings or spasms
- Changes in sexual function, such as sensitivity and fertility
- Pain or strange sensations
- Difficulty breathing or panic attacks
Some symptoms should be treated as an emergency and would require immediate medical attention as soon as possible, these can include:
- Extreme pain or pressure in your neck or back
- General weakness, incoordination or consistent paralysis in any part of your body
- Numbness, tingling or loss of sensation in your hands, fingers, feet or toes
- Total loss of bladder or bowel control
- Unable to with balance and walk normally
- Being unable to breathe
- Unusual or bent out of shape neck or back
To understand these symptoms it’s important to understand the biology of the spine itself and how injuries are classified. Different parts of the spine are responsible for the movement and sensory response of certain limbs and other body parts. An injury related to arms, hands, legs and pelvic organs is known as a Tetraplegia (or Quadriplegia) where anything that effects any one or more of this is a Paraplegia. An injury is classified as a ‘complete’ injury if all movement and feeling is lost below the damaged spinal cord, or ‘incomplete’ if the sufferer is only partially immobilized or a reduction in sensory feelings.
Why do Spinal Injuries Carry such a High Risk?
The spine itself does more than just connect most of your major bones to one another, it is the hub of the central nervous system. This is why injuries to the spine can have such a devastating impact on other areas of the body to which they don’t seem to have much of an obvious connection with. It’s comprised of vertebrae, disks, and ligaments that together all make up the spinal cord. A sudden shock to any of these parts can dislodge, break or bruise them resulting in spinal trauma which may heal in days, months or years. Further damage can happen from bleeding, swelling or by the sufferer not realising they are injured and accidently causing further trauma by simply moving.
Through the central nervous system, the spinal cord carries messages from the brain around the body, regulating movements, sensations and any fluids and nutrients that move around the body via the nerves. Damage to nerve fibers can get in the way of these messages causing the body to not respond as the brain (aka the person) intends. These messages are transmitted in milliseconds; such as the time it takes you to think subconsciously and move a body part. This is something we are all born instinctively knowing how to do and something we all take for granted until something prevents us from doing what comes naturally. Spinal injuries cause sensations (or lack of) that feel alien to us and for many, is the first time ever when we don’t have complete control over our bodies and their functions. This can be a frightening feeling. Even breathing and the beating of our heart is controlled through the central nervous system in some form. The importance of the spine can never be understated.
Common Causes of Spinal Injury
According to medical statistics a range of factors can cause spinal injuries but the most common are as follows:
- Car/other vehicle accidents – Car and motorbike accidents are sadly the most common cause of spinal cord injuries in the UK, they make up nearly half of spinal injuries reported every year.
- Falls and trips – Falling over or losing balance in the elderly is a common cause of spinal injury. This statistic is much lower in the under sixties.
- Violent attacks – Over 10% of spinal injuries are sadly the result of fights or violent encounters. This is usually in heated domestic situations or as a result of drugs and alcohol abuse. Alcohol is thought to be involved in 1 in 4 spinal injuries.
- Sport, athletic injuries – Taking part in sports or other high-octane activities can always be a risk, sometimes accidents happen and these makeup over 10% of spinal injuries in the UK.
- Illness and diet – Sicknesses like cancer, arthritis or anything else that causes inflammation of the spinal cord also can also result in potential spinal cord injuries. Calcium deficiency or the lack of fruit and vegetables can also lead to disorders.
- Genetics – While genetic predisposition itself is not a cause of actual spinal injuries, scoliosis, weak bone density and other inherited disorders can play a role and increase the chances of spinal injuries in general.
Changes in Bodily Function
People suffering from relatively new spinal injuries can be affected by different symptoms in different ways; here are some further details as to how they can have an impact on peoples lives:
- Bladder control – Our bladder control and store urine from our kidneys. When we suffer from a spinal injury however it may be difficult for our brains to send the messages we need to our bladders, damaging the control we have over it. The changes can, unfortunately, result in increased risks of infections and other problems like kidney stones. There are methods to treat this and help people learn to adapt if they are affected.
- Bowel control – Just like the above messages from the brain may not reach the bowels the same way they did before a spinal injury. This sadly can result in a loss of bowel control. As with the techniques that help sufferers from spinal injuries deal with this new loss of function there are multiple therapies available. A high-fibre diet may help regulate your bowels, and you’ll learn techniques to optimize your bowel function during rehabilitation.
- Sensory complications – Damage to the spine can result in total or partial loss of sensory feeling in the skin cells and within other areas of the body. This means when experiencing pain or even simple things like heat and cold, the brain may not get the message. This can be dangerous for sufferers of spinal injuries who may not be aware they are in situations that would normally cause a person to react.
- Circulatory complications – A spinal cord injury may cause circulatory issues ranging such as low blood pressure or a risk of developing blood clots, such as deep vein thrombosis.
- Breathing – Spinal injuries may make it more difficult to breathe or even cough up unpleasant substances the body needs to purge. If a spinal cord injury affects the whole respiratory system then the sufferer may have an increased risk of pneumonia or other lung problems. This can be compounded it the sufferer was a smoker or already has lung difficulties.
- Maintaining muscle tone – As well as general strength, muscle tone can be something sufferers from spinal cord injuries can have. This can slow down recovery, especially when building, maintain and strengthening the muscles is essential to the process. The difficulty is this can be a catch 22 as being able to exercise these muscles to achieve this in the first place is the hard part. Working out muscles, which are essential to recovery, is hard when said muscles cannot be worked. There are however medical treatments that can help with this, paving the way to eventual recovery.
- Fitness and general wellness – A side effect of loss of being able to move is the loss fitness and general well being. Even those suffering from simple spinal injuries may need to take it easy in order to heal. Damage to the spinal cord can sadly lead to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, placing the sufferer and at a larger risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. There are many forms of exercise, so this is not a foregone conclusion. Also, a healthy diet can help keep a sufferer well and healthy.
- Sexual health. Many forms of spinal cord injury may affect sexuality, fertility and even the ability to function at all. Men are at most risk for this by the nature of how we function, but there are complications for women also. As discussed our ability to experience sensations can be damaged by spinal cord injuries, this can make sex impossible or just very difficult. Fertility itself could be off the table altogether in some of the worst cases. There are ways to overcome many of these problems with the help of doctors. There are also different ways a couple can still continue to try for a baby should one of them suffer from a serious spinal injury.
- Pain – This one seems so obvious but the reoccurring pain from extreme to just annoying is something many people suffering from spinal injuries can experience every day. Be it muscle or joint pain, or from not resting and doing too much, causing further damage to the spine. Nerve pain can occur after a spinal cord injury, especially in someone with an incomplete injury.
- Depression and Anxiety – Having to adjust to life with a serious spinal condition can also cause changes in a sufferer’s mental state. Depression is sadly common in people getting to grips with a new injury and that can be more dangerous than the original accident in the long run. Luckily those who are learning to cope with these changes will be offered this help by medical professionals but it’s important to not underestimate how important our mental health is alongside our physical health.
Injuries Due to Preventable Accidents
Spinal injuries happen as a result of freak accidents most of the time but there are things that can be done to reduce the risks we take. As the statistics above reveal the causes of most spinal injuries, this should be something we all take stock of and live our lives with a little more care when doing certain activities.
As car accidents are the most common cause it’s important to never forget to wear your seatbelt and above all, drive carefully and whatever you do, do not drive after drinking alcohol. Driving into shallow water has caused some catastrophic injuries in the past. Always check the depth of water before diving. 12 feet is the ideal depth, if in doubt don’t dive. When playing sport always make sure you wear the recommended safety equipment. Be aware of your head and neck at all times and don’t try manoeuvres that would put either at risk.
Anyone who has suffered some severe trauma to their head, neck or back should always seek medical attention as soon as possible. Usually a serious injury caused this way is initially obvious when it happens, or its symptoms take effect very soon after. Some serious injuries however may have been caused over time or in unusual fashion and are not immediately obvious but can be just as serious. Seeking medical attention as soon as a spinal injury is suspected is always recommended as soon as possible.
Research shows that there is a correlation between sustaining and reporting the injury to a medical professional, and the time it takes to recover afterwards. If you suspect you or someone else has a serious spinal injury after experiencing severe trauma then do not move or move the sufferer. This could cause further even permanent damage. Call emergency services and let them make the decision of when and how to move the person with the injury.