common-causes-of-spinal-cord-injury

A Spinal Cord Injury involves damage to any part of the spinal cord or its nerves. The physical, mental, and emotional impact of a Spinal Cord Injury is usually severe, and can potentially lead to total loss of function in the body. Here, we take a closer look at the common causes of spinal cord injuries and how to possibly prevent one.

Understanding Spinal Cord Injury

A Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) involves mutilation to the spinal cord that causes reversible or irreversible changes in its function. Symptoms may include the loss of muscle function, sensation, or autonomic function, in the parts of the body supplied by the spinal cord below the level of the injury. Causes of SCI occur primarily due to accidents and violent impact, including car crashes or injuries during contact sports. Treatment typically involves a tailored regenerative rehabilitation program that includes Stem Cell Therapy, Physiotherapy, Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy, and other procedures as deemed necessary.

Symptoms of Spinal Cord Injury

Significant trauma to the neck or head puts a patient at high risk for a Spinal Cord Injury. Moreover, such injuries may not be apparent at first, as symptoms like numbness may set in gradually. Early signs to note immediately after a trauma that could indicate a Spinal Cord Injury include:

  • Oddly positioned neck or back
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Weakness or paralysis
  • Numbness or tingling in the hands and / or feet
  • Severe back and / or neck pain
  • Difficulty walking
  • Loss of bladder and / or bowel control

In the case of an injury to the head or neck, the patient should receive medical attention and a full check-up immediately. A neurologist can conduct the necessary tests to determine whether or not there is a Spinal Cord Injury, and how severe it is. The sooner the patient gets a diagnosis, the better are prospects for recovery.

Common causes of Spinal Cord Injury

A Spinal Cord Injury occurs when the spinal cord or its vertebrae or ligaments sustain trauma. There is immediate damage from the trauma itself, and subsequent damage from the inflammation, bleeding, and accumulation of fluid around the site of the injury. The causes of Spinal Cord Injury can be divided into two categories – traumatic and non-traumatic. 

The traumatic causes behind Spinal Cord Injury include:

  • Falls: Particularly for people over the age of 65, a serious fall puts them at risk of a Spinal Cord Injury
  • Vehicular accidents: Nearly half of the cases of Spinal Cord Injury every yea,r occur due to motorcycle and automobile accidents
  • Acts of violence: Gunshot or knife wounds in violent encounters can cause serious damage to the spinal cord, even shattering some of the vertebrae
  • Sports and recreation: Injuries sustained during activities like diving in shallow water or impact sports, account for about 10% of Spinal Cord Injuries
  • Electrical shock: While this is not one of the common causes of Spinal Cord Injury, a severe electric shock may damage the nerves of the spinal cord and cause long-lasting trauma

The non-traumatic causes behind Spinal Cord Injury include:

  • Arthritis: Inflammation of the joints in the spine could cause damage to the vertebrae over time
  • Osteoporosis: Brittle bones are less likely to heal after sustaining even minor injuries. For those with osteoporosis, even something like a lower back injury could lead to Spinal Cord Injury if left untreated
  • Cancer: Tumors along the spinal cord can affect blood flow and damage the nerves.
  • Inflammation of the spinal cord: People with certain autoimmune conditions sustain damage to the myelin that covers nerve cell fibers, which can lead to inflammation and serious injury

Risk factors for Spinal Cord Injury

There is no real way to prevent Spinal Cord Injury, as most of them occur due to accidents and can happen to anyone. However, certain risk factors may increase the likelihood for certain individuals. These include:

  • Being in the 16-30 age range: Over half of patients with Spinal Cord Injury fall in this age group
  • Belonging to a certain gender group: Data shows that around 80% of traumatic Spinal Cord Injury cases happen to men
  • Drinking alcohol: In about 25% of Spinal Cord Injury cases, alcohol abuse is involved
  • Being above the age of 65 years: People in this age range are more prone to falls and are slower to recover from injuries, which increases their risk
  • Having certain conditions: Those with diseases that weaken the bones and/or joints, such as Osteoporosis, are at higher risk of a Spinal Cord Injury even if the initial trauma is relatively mild
  • Engaging in risky activities: People who play sports without wearing protective gear, dive into shallow water, or drive recklessly are at much higher risk of Spinal Cord Injury

Diagnosing Spinal Cord Injury

When a patient is suspected of having a Spinal Cord Injury, they must be taken to the emergency room, immediately. The healthcare team will first verify that the injury is not affecting the patient’s heart rate or breathing. Then, a neurologist will conduct tests to determine how the patient’s motor function and sensory function have been affected.

There are several tests that doctors use to establish a Spinal Cord Injury diagnosis, including:

  • An X-ray to identify bone dislocations or fractures
  • An MRI to scan the soft tissues of the spinal cord
  • A CT scan to identify blood vessel damage or blood clots
  • An Electromyogram (EMG) to assess the electrical activity in nerve cells

Preventing Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal Cord Injury causes mostly involve accidents, which are by definition hard to predict or avoid. However, taking certain precautionary measures can reduce one’s risk of such injuries.

  • Falls can be prevented by using grab rails or other forms of support when moving on slippery surfaces or climbing stairs. This is particularly important for senior  people and young children.
  • Seatbelts should be fastened by everyone in the car, and not just the person driving. Children below the age of 12 should sit in the backseat to avoid airbag injuries in the event of an accident.
  • Diving should only be practised in pools deeper than 3.7 metres.
  • Protective equipment should be worn during sports. Players should avoid leading with their head.

FAQs

  • What happens if your spinal cord is damaged?

When someone’s spinal cord is damaged, messages from the brain to the rest of the body are unable to get through. At the same time, the spinal cord nerves below the site of the injury are unable to send signals upward to the brain. As a result, the person can no longer control their movements.

  • What are the complications of Spinal Cord Injury?

A Spinal Cord Injury can lead to a variety of other medical complications. Circulatory problems are very common, which can increase the patient’s risk of a heart attack or a Pulmonary embolism. Respiratory problems, urological disorders, and pressure ulcers are other complications that can occur.

  • Can a person walk again after a Spinal Cord Injury?

A patient with an incomplete Spinal Cord Injury may learn to walk again with aids. Commencing Physiotherapy and muscle recovery as soon as possible after the injury is crucial. Most patients experience the fastest degree of recovery in the first 6 to 12 months after the injury.

  • Can a spinal cord be repaired?

The effects of a Spinal Cord Injury can be controlled with proper Rehabilitation and Therapy, helping the patient recover some or most of their functionality.

  • Does Spinal Cord Injury affect the brain?

After a spinal cord injury, messages from the brain cannot reach the rest of the body, leading to loss of muscle control. Moreover, the injury itself can cause significant inflammation in the brain and a loss of nerve cells, which can affect cognitive and emotional abilities. 

  • How can Spinal Cord Injuries stop?

Damage to the spinal cord after an injury cannot be reversed. One can prevent the risk of a Spinal Cord Injury by driving carefully and taking precautions while playing a sport or while carrying heavy loads.

  • What is the immediate concern with the patient who has suffered a spinal cord injury at C3?

Spinal nerves at C3-C5 control the muscles of the diaphragm. A C3 Spinal Cord Injury can thus potentially hinder breathing and be fatal if not treated at once. The patient may experience paralysis in the limbs and require a ventilator for breathing.

  • What is the main cause of diseases that are related to the brain and spinal cord?

Most diseases of the brain and spinal cord are caused by infections, injuries, bone fractures, blocked blood supply, or conditions such as a tumor.

  • What disease affects the brain and spinal cord?

Conditions of the brain and spinal cord include Meningitis, Polio, Encephalitis, Bell’s Palsy, tumors, Guillain-Barre Syndrome, and Spinal Cord Injury.

A Spinal Cord Injury, in short, is a serious condition that requires prompt medical attention  after trauma. A clear understanding of Spinal Cord Injury causes and symptoms can enable prompt action and speedy diagnosis, which will maximize the patient’s chances of recovery. In addition, taking suitable care to stay safe while indulging in any activity like playing games, driving, etc can help one keep out of harm’s way.

Dr Na'eem Sadiq is a respected stem cell specialist at Plexus, and a prominent neurologist in Bangalore. He studied neurology and clinical neurophysiology in London, and worked with some of the most prestigious medical institutions in England, and the Middle East. He completed his MBBS at Bellary Government Medical College, and a postgraduate degree in psychiatry from NIMHANS in Bangalore.

Dr Na'eem has perfected his knowledge and expertise in Continuing medical education (CME), and training in tissue culture, Stem Cell Therapy, and neurology. Dr Na'eem Sadiq possesses an undying passion to improve people’s lives. This led to the creation of Plexus, a neuro and Stem Cell Research centre in Bangalore in neurosurgery, and neurorehabilitation.