About 450,000 people in the United States are living with trauma to their spine, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Association. Annually, 17,000 spinal cord injuries occur nationwide, which costs about $9.7 billion yearly. This immense problem is usually the result of trauma to the vertebral column, which affects the spinal cord in many cases. The spinal cord damage affects the brain’s ability to receive and send neural messages to the body, interrupting motor, sensory and autonomic function.
Reasons for Spinal Cord Injuries
Car accidents are the leading cause of cord injuries in young people. In those over 65, spinal cord injuries are usually from falls. Sports and physical assaults cause many SCIs in those of all ages.
Types of Spinal Cord Injuries
There are two main types:
- Complete spinal cord injury: These occur when all signals and sensory and motor function are disrupted from below the location of the problem. Both the left and right sides of the body can experience this loss. Complete spinal cord injuries account for about 50 percent of SCIs. This does not mean the cord is transected. Rather, it is usually bruised, or blood flow is hampered.
- Incomplete spinal cord injury: In this case, some function remains below the injury level. For instance, the patient might move one leg or arm more than the other. They may also be able to function more on one side of the body.
Spinal Injury Grading Scale for Cord Injuries
The grading system places injuries in specific categories, depending on the loss of sensory and motor function:
- Grade E: Normal function and transmission is present.
- Grade D: This is an incomplete motor injury encompassing more than half of the muscle groups involved.
- Grade C: This is also an incomplete motor injury where less than 50 percent of the muscle groups display some movement and are able to lift against gravity with full function.
- Grade B: In this category, the sensory input is partially complete but the motor function loss below the level of injury is lost.
- Grade A: In this situation, sensory and motor function is completely lost.
This is an injury to the spinal cord where both sensory and motor function may be lost to some degree. This loss is associated with a transient loss of function that usually resolves within 24 to 48 hours.
Diagnostics in a Spinal Cord Injury
The first thing an emergency room doctor will do is to see if respirations are normal. If cardiac function is also within the normal range, the physician will check the sensory and motor abilities. Tests are done to measure the person’s response to sensation. If the tests are abnormal or if the person is in a coma, a cervical collar is maintained until further testing can be done. These results are usually vital in determining pain and suffering compensation for personal injury victims.
X-Rays, MRIs and CT Scans
Today, using CT scans is an initial radiological approach as the doctor looks for bony abnormalities. An MRI is also used to visualize the spinal cord. This test can show blood clots, damage to the cord, herniated discs or other issues.
Treatment of Spinal Cord Injuries
From surgical to non-surgical treatments, the emphasis is on preserving as much function as possible. In cases where surgery cannot repair the damage, it might be useful to prevent further problems and dysfunction. Since progressive loss is common in spinal cord injury, this can be a life-saving measure. In cervical injuries, maintaining respiration and other functions can prevent fatality.
Research Into Spinal Cord Injury
Research is being done to protect the nerve cells from further damage. For instance, using medications to prevent cell death is a focus of research. Cell replacement therapies are being researched to repair broken connections with new neuronal growth. The use of neural scaffolds or natural regrowth drugs to treat neurons and restructure axons, which are used to communicate with other nerve cells, is being tested.
Finally, work is being done to enhance nerve cell function with rehabilitation and electrical stimulation. Often, this involves the surgical placement of a device or assistive mechanics to approach normal movement.