Suffering a spinal cord injury (SCI) can be a devastating event. Those who sustain an SCI will require immediate medical treatment. This is often followed by extensive rehabilitation. By using a variety of treatments as soon as possible, you can reduce your risk of sustaining even more damage. In addition, SCI patients who receive early intervention can even regain some of their functional abilities.
Want to learn more about spinal cord injuries and how to treat them? Use this thorough guide to help navigate your treatment.
Understanding the Spinal Cord & Spinal Cord Injuries (SCIs)
The spinal cord is the main thoroughfare from which the brain sends and receives messages to the rest of the body. When the spinal cord cannot relay these messages, the body, in turn, cannot function properly. Many people think of the spinal cord as a single nerve that stretches across the length of the back. In actuality, a bundle of nerves banded together by a myelin sheath twine together to compose the spinal cord.
The spinal column houses and protects the spinal cord. These bones, known as vertebrae, have four main sections:
- Cervical: The neck region of the spine (from C1 to C7)
- Thoracic: The region connecting the end of the neck to the upper back
- Lumbar: The lower back region of the spine
- Sacral: Located within the pelvic region
Typically, the higher your spinal cord injury, the more damage it causes throughout your body.
Basic Types of Spinal Cord Injuries (SCIs)
There are several ways in which the spinal cord can become injured. All spinal cord injuries, however, are divided into two main categories.
- Incomplete Spinal Cord Injuries: This involves an injury in which parts of the body still function below the level of the trauma. An incomplete spinal cord injury can be due to an injury or damage to the nerve fibers of the spinal cord.
- Complete Spinal Cord Injuries: This injury results in a complete loss of motor and sensory function below the level of the injury. It includes paralysis depending upon what region of the spine was affected. It often results from a bruise to the spinal cord that affects blood flow to the area.
What Causes a Spinal Cord Injury (SCI)?
- Car & motor vehicle accidents: The trauma of a car accident can be devastating. The excessive force of the impact is a common cause of spinal cord injuries.
- Acts of violence: Gunshots, assaults, and other violent acts may result in a spinal cord injury.
- Falls: Older adults are especially prone to SCIs after sustaining a fall.
- Sports injuries: Most of us have watched a sport when an otherwise healthy athlete needed to be carted off the field after a bad collision. The impact sustained during some contact sports can cause spinal cord injuries.
- Osteoporosis: The aging process causes the spinal column to slowly lose structure. Damage to the vertebrae and discs can put pressure on the spinal cord.
- Cancer: Nearby tumors can apply pressure on the spinal cold, restricting blood flow.
- Inflammation to the spine: Certain inflammatory conditions, like arthritis, also impinge on the space reserved for the spinal cord.
Treating Spinal Cord Injuries (SCIs)
As medical advances and technology continue to improve, the effectiveness of treating spinal cord injuries continues to be more encouraging. The type of treatment you receive ultimately depends on the severity of your spinal cord injury and the cause.
When you suffer an SCI, emergency medical treatment is critical. Immobilization of the affected area prevents further damage. If your injury causes breathing difficulties, then a ventilator can provide your body with necessary oxygen.
Most people enter intensive care after a spinal cord injury. This allows a team of specialists to diagnose their condition and determine the best course of action. The ultimate goal: to prevent further complications and possibly regain function to affected areas.
Sometimes emergency surgery is necessary to remove tissue or fluids that compress the spinal cord. A laminectomy can help to remove bone or disc fragments that press on the spine. If your spinal cord injury involves damage to an intervertebral disc, a discectomy may be necessary. During this procedure, your surgeon will remove all or part of a damaged disc.
Depending upon the severity of your condition, your surgeon may use a spinal fusion to enhance the stability of the spine. For example, during a discectomy, a surgeon may insert a bone graft so that the affected vertebrae grow together as one during the post-op period.
Spinal traction is another option to stabilize the spine. This procedure pulls the spinal column in opposite directions to alter the positioning of the damaged areas. This typically involves using weights or other devices that connect to the skull and other parts of the spine. In addition, traction often involves bed rest and/or using a halo vest.
After Emergency SCI Treatment
There are several treatments available once you have stabilized from your injury. Many treatments focus on physical rehabilitation and regaining functioning. Others, however, address the psychological impacts of a spinal cord injury.
Some medications can assist those who suffer from these injuries. For example, Methylprednisolone is a corticosteroid that can be used within 8 hours of an injury. For some, it helps to reduce inflammation and damage to nerve cells. In addition, medications can help with pain and decrease spasticity—a condition in which certain muscles remain stiff and tight after the injury.
As soon as possible, a rehabilitation team will start working with you. This team of allied health professionals works to improve your muscle function, motor skills development, and relearning of everyday tasks. Physical, occupational, and speech therapists all work together to help you rebuild your life. Since most of the significant recovery occurs in the first year or two after an SCI, it is important to receive these treatments early and often.
As part of your rehabilitation, functional electrical stimulation (FES) may be an option. Using electricity, these stimulators aid the muscles in making certain movements. As a result, you may have a better chance at regaining the ability to stand, reach, walk, or grip. In addition, FES may help to improve bladder, bowel, and respiratory function.
Your rehabilitation team may also provide you with adaptive equipment to allow you become more independent. Modern wheelchairs and assistive walking devices can enhance your mobility during this difficult time. In addition, electronic adaptive equipment can help to attenuate your symptoms.
While the physical symptoms of a spinal cord injury can be devastating, one shouldn’t overlook the mental and emotional effects. These injuries change the course of a person’s life. As a result, many people have difficulty dealing with and adapting to these changes. Social workers, psychotherapists, and support groups can be an invaluable resource to reduce depression and motivate you to continue with rehabilitation.
In addition, your loved ones may also need an outlet to cope with the abrupt change in family dynamics. Both you and your family’s emotional struggles should be addressed, allowing you to form a stable support network that is available during your challenges.
As mentioned earlier, medical technology continues to advance. This gives hope to more and more individuals who suffer from a spinal cord injury. Stem cell research, regenerating nerve cells, and moderate hypothermia may eventually lead to better, faster recoveries. Of course, as the name suggests, these treatments are still in the experimental phases. More research will eventually determine the effectiveness of these therapies.
Looking for Expert Advice About Your Spinal Cord Injury?
It’s not easy to cope with a spinal cord injury. You probably have more questions than solutions. So, where can you turn when you want expert care dealing with your spinal issues?
The Advanced Spine Center uses a multidisciplinary team to make sure each of our patients receives the best care possible. Instead of simply turning you into a diagnosis, we listen to your story, fears, questions, and treatment goals. We then create a custom plan that uses a variety of therapies to help you live your best life possible despite your SCI.
Getting expert treatment as soon as possible is critical for your recovery. Take a few moments now to schedule a consultation today!