Spinal trauma generally falls into one of two categories; spinal cord injuries and vertebral injuries.
During a typical year, there are about 12,000 spinal cord injuries in the US or 40 cases per million persons per year. The most common causes of spinal cord injuries are motor vehicle crashes (48%) and falls (16%).1
Vertebral injuries include fractures, dislocations and subluxations. In the neck, fractures of the posterior elements and dislocations can damage the vertebral arteries, causing a syndrome resembling a brain stem stroke.
A spinal cord injury often causes permanent loss of strength, sensation and function below the site of the injury. Symptoms can include:
- Trouble walking
- Loss of control of the bladder or bowels
- Inability to move arms or legs
- Feelings of spreading numbness or tingling in the extremities
- Pain, pressure and stiffness in the back or neck area
- Signs of shock
Spinal cord injuries may result from damage to the vertebrae, ligaments or discs of the spinal column or to the spinal cord itself. A traumatic spinal cord injury may stem from a sudden, traumatic blow to your spine that fractures, dislocates, crushes or compresses one or more of your vertebrae.
A nontraumatic spinal cord injury may be caused by arthritis, cancer, inflammation, infections or disc degeneration of the spine.
Although a spinal cord injury is most commonly the result of an accident and can happen to anyone, certain factors may predispose you to a higher risk of sustaining a spinal cord injury, including:
- Being male
- Being between the ages of 16 and 30
- Engaging in physically risky behavior
- Being older than 65
- Having a bone or joint disorder
At present, there is no way to reverse damage to the spinal cord. But researchers are continually working on new treatments, including prostheses and medications that may promote nerve cell regeneration or improve the function of the nerves that remain after a spinal cord injury.
In some cases, surgery is necessary to remove fragments of bones, foreign objects, herniated discs or fractured vertebrae that are compressing the spine. Surgery may also be needed to stabilize the spine to prevent future pain or deformity.
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1 National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, Facts and Figures at a Glance. Birmingham, AL: University of Alabama at Birmingham, 2016.