An injury to the spinal cord can be a scary diagnosis, especially since careful treatment and recovery are essential to avoid complications in the future. Some people with these types of injuries experience a loss of function, which might be temporary or permanent.
Depending on the severity and type of injury, different methods can be used to support the healing process so a patient can maintain as much function as possible.
Common Causes of Spinal Cord Injuries
The spinal cord can be damaged in many ways, but external trauma tends to be the most common cause of spinal cord injuries. For example, if a collision puts pressure on the spine, it can result in an injury.
Car accidents, impact on the sports field, or falling are all examples of traumatic injuries that can result in a spinal cord injury.
Non-traumatic spinal cord injuries can also occur. These conditions can occur if pressure is placed on the spine for some reason. For example, blood clots, tumors, or pressure sores can all cause damage to the spine.
Statistics for Spinal Cord Injury
The American Association of Neurological Surgeons states that an estimated 17,000 spinal cord injuries occur annually in the US. Men are at a higher risk for these injuries. The most common age group for spinal cord injuries is between 16 – 30 years old.
The recovery and outlook after a spinal cord injury depend on the severity of the trauma. People with incomplete spinal cord injuries have a better chance of recovery because only partial damage occurs to the spinal cord.
Unfortunately, there is a higher risk of death in the first year after a spinal cord injury. A person with a spinal cord injury is 2 – 5 times more likely to die early compared to patients without spinal cord injuries.
The Difference Between Complete and Incomplete Injuries
Spinal cord injuries will be classified into two stages.
- Complete Spinal Cord Injury: This type of injury means that the person has lost function. There is no voluntary movement or sensation in the affected areas of the body.
- Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury: An incomplete injury means that the patient still has some function. For example, the patient might have more movement in one limb compared to the other, or they have sensations in parts of the body they are unable to move.
Recovery Stages After a Spinal Cord Injury
Medical experts have identified specific stages during recovery from a spinal cord injury.
First Stage of Healing
Immediately after the spinal cord injury occurs, a person is in the first stage of their recovery. Typically, the patient is in the hospital and requires services in the critical care department. Immediate treatments might be necessary, such as surgery.
Survival is the most important priority at this time, so the medical team ensures that breathing and heartbeat are normal. Then, testing will be done to determine sensation in the extremities. Keeping the spine as stable as possible is imperative to avoid further damage.
Medical care can help to minimize the risk of complications and limit the damage. When a patient is stable enough to leave the hospital, the next step might be long-term care.
Second Stage of Healing
As soon as a patient leaves the hospital, they enter the second stage of healing after a spinal cord injury. This period focuses on rehabilitation, often including occupational and/or physical therapy.
It’s common for a patient to move from the hospital into a rehabilitation facility where they have hands-on medical support and therapy.
As a person moves out of the facility and back home, ongoing rehabilitation is necessary to support recovery. Not only will the patient have regular checkups with their doctor, but they will likely require rehabilitation support for many years.
Maintenance and Recovery
Finally, a person can transition into the most normal life possible. But most patients will need continued rehabilitation to support function, mobility, and more.
If a person is going to regain function, it typically happens up to 18 months post-injury. In rare situations, a person can regain function years after the injury occurs.
Recovery Timeline After a Spinal Cord Injury
The treatment priorities vary depending on the patient’s stage of recovery after a spinal cord injury. Each person is unique, which is why there isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment plan for all patients.
- Medical imaging
- Diagnostic testing
- Stabilizing the Spine
- Emergency surgery (as needed)
First Few Weeks After Injury
- Managing swelling and damage
- Moving from hospital care to another facility
- Often, rehabilitation services are necessary
First Year After Injury
- Ongoing rehabilitation care, such as medical services, occupational therapy, and physical therapy
- Regular checkups with a doctor
- Additional treatments or surgery, as necessary
Most patients with spinal cord injuries require special medical care for the rest of their lives. These ongoing services can include continued rehabilitation, as well as medical services for any complications that might come up.
Grading Scale for Spinal Cord Injuries
The American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) uses a grading scale to determine the severity of a spinal cord injury. The worst injuries (complete spinal cord injuries) are rated as “A,” with the least severe injuries receiving an “E” rating. “E” means that the injury is not affecting muscle or sensory function.
Many people with spinal cord injuries will experience paralysis – a loss of body function. But patients with less-severe injuries can often regain some function. On the other hand, it’s unlikely to regain function in patients with severe injuries.
Treatment Approach for Spinal Cord Injuries
The treatment process can be quite in-depth after a spinal cord injury, and specific treatments are customized to each patient.
Typically, a treatment plan is designed to manage and prevent secondary conditions that often arise in patients with spinal cord injuries.
- Urinary tract infections
- Pressure ulcers
- Muscle spasms
- Deep vein thrombosis
- Chronic pain
- Respiratory infections
Additionally, mental health problems, such as depression, can be common after a spinal cord injury. 20 – 30% of patients show signs of mental health issues. So, it might be necessary to seek psychotherapy or counseling services to help with mental health.
Is There a Cure for Spinal Cord Injuries?
Unfortunately, there is no known cure for spinal cord injuries. Even though there have been many medical discoveries and advancements, these solutions only minimize the effects of the injury.
There isn’t a way to regenerate the injured part of the spine. Only a fraction of patients with spinal cord injuries are able to recover function.
The good news is that rehabilitation and treatment can help patients recover as much function as possible. Some patients can regain a part of their function to live as normally as possible, with some necessary lifestyle adjustments to minimize potential complications going forward.
Call the Spine Experts
Whether you are experiencing minor back pain or have a serious spinal cord injury, seeking top-level medical care is critical. Our team at Orthopedic Associates is here to help with full-service solutions for patients of all ages. Contact us at your convenience when you are ready to book an appointment. You are invited to call our office at (972) 420-1776.