Spinal trauma is damage to the spinal cord caused by an injury. The spinal cord contains nerves that carry messages between the brain and the body, so damage can cause permanent changes in bodily functions.
A spinal cord injury may be caused by a traumatic blow to the spine that fractures, dislocates, crushes, or compresses one or more bones of the spine (vertebrae). It may also be the result of a penetrating injury that cuts the spinal cord, such as a gunshot wound.
Sometimes relatively minor falls or accidents can result in a significant spinal cord injury. This can happen if there is an underlying degree of weakness, dislocation, or instability from an untreated condition called degenerative spine disease.
How common is spinal trauma?
An estimated 276,000 people in the U.S. were living with a spinal cord injury in 2014.
Who gets spinal trauma?
Spinal cord trauma can happen to anyone and is usually the result of an accident. Men are more likely to have a traumatic spinal cord injury than women.
Common causes of traumatic spinal cord injuries are:
- Motor vehicle accidents
- Acts of violence (primarily gunshot wounds)
- Sports and recreational injuries
Non-traumatic spinal cord injuries may be caused by arthritis, osteoporosis, cancer, inflammation, infections, or degenerative disc disease.
How is spinal trauma diagnosed?
Spinal cord trauma is diagnosed through an evaluation of your neurological symptoms and diagnostic imaging tests, such as a computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.
Depending on the location of the injury, spinal cord trauma symptoms include varying degrees of:
- Weakness or paralysis of your arms or legs
- Numbness of your body below the level of damage
- Difficulty with bowel and bladder function
The severity of a spinal cord injury is classified by one of the following:
- Complete spinal cord injury involves total loss of motor and sensory function below the level of injury.
- incomplete spinal cord injury involves some level of preservation of motor and/or sensory function below the level of the injury.
Generally speaking, the higher the level of your injury (the closer it is to the base of your skull) the worse the complications. Incomplete spinal cord injuries carry a better prognosis for return of normal function than complete spinal cord injuries do.
Anyone who experiences significant head or neck trauma needs to be evaluated by medical personnel immediately.
Damage to the spinal cord cannot be reversed, but researchers are working on new treatments that could promote the regeneration of nerve cells or improve the function of nerves that remain after the injury.
Current treatment focuses on preventing further injury. Bleeding, swelling, inflammation, and fluid accumulation can cause additional damage over days or weeks. Medications can help reduce swelling and inflammation.
Surgery is usually required to repair broken or dislocated vertebrae and relieve compression of the spinal cord. Spinal fusion surgery involves placing bone or bone-like material between vertebrae and securing the vertebrae with titanium screws, rods, and/or plates to hold the bones together until they heal. With penetrating injuries like gunshot wounds, foreign objects may need to be removed surgically
Nurses that specialize in the care of patients with spinal cord injury work closely with the medical team to promote good blood circulation to the spinal cord and reduce the chances of other problems that can occur following injury.
Our neuro-rehabilitation specialists can help you regain your independence and quality of life after your spinal cord injury. Our programs include aquatic therapy, community reintegration, peer mentorship, horticulture, cooking, and ceramics.
- Date of last review: January 24, 2017