Spinal Cord Injuries

A spinal cord injury is a traumatic event that can significantly alter one’s life and lifestyle. While treatments can’t reverse the damage to the spine, there are effective options that can stop further damage and help address complications of a spinal cord injury. 

What is a spinal cord injury?

Our spines are a collection of nerves that send signals to our brain from the rest of our body. These nerves are like a command center for our entire body, helping us:

  • Move our muscles and control our movements
  • Register pain, temperature, sense of touch and position
  • Breathe, go to the bathroom and tell our heart to beat 

These nerves run through the spinal cord and the spinal canal. The spinal cord is surrounded by vertebrae, protecting it from injury. However, damage to the spinal cord can occur from trauma, loss of blood supply or compression caused by a tumor or infection. 

A spinal cord injury begins at the moment of injury. Often an injury does not completely sever the spinal cord. Instead, the injury causes fractures and compression of the vertebrae, destroying the signal carried between the brain and the rest of the body. The most common causes of spinal cord injury result from:

  • A fall
  • A vehicle crash
  • A serious collision or fall during a sporting event
  • A dive into shallow water
  • Violence

Are there different types of spinal cord injuries?

Approximately 12,000 new spinal cord injuries are reported every year. There are two different types of injuries: complete and incomplete. A complete spinal cord injury results in complete loss of sensation and muscle control in the body below the injury. After an incomplete spinal cord injury, some function remains below the level of the injury.

When the upper portion of the spinal cord (in the neck) is injured, quadriplegia paralysis can occur. This results in paralysis of both arms and both legs. When the lower portion of the spinal cord is injured (in the lower back), paraplegia-paralysis, or paralysis of both legs, can occur.

What treatment options are available?

Researchers and scientists continue to discover effective new treatments to address spinal cord injuries. However, there is currently no treatment that reverses damage to the spinal cord. Fortunately, there are options to help address complications and stop further damage.

If you or a loved one has experienced a spinal cord injury, the medical team will discuss what treatment approaches are best, given the location and extent of the injury. Some options may include:

  • Surgery 
  • Traction
  • Steroid medication
  • Experimental treatments that may help halt cell death, control inflammation and promote nerve repair or regeneration
  • Rehabilitation
  • Physical and occupational therapy
  • Assistive devices, such as wheelchairs, walkers or leg braces
  • Communication therapy

These are just a few options that may be available. You should always talk to your doctor about possible medical treatments so that, together, you can create a plan that is right for you or your loved one. 

What can I do to help a loved one with a spinal cord injury?

Caregivers are invaluable to those they care for. It’s not always easy, and at times it can feel overwhelming. Feelings of frustration, along with physical and emotional demands, can be draining. Yet helping someone you care for can be extremely rewarding. As a caregiver, it is important to keep in mind that you do not have to walk this path alone. Working in isolation is not beneficial to you or your loved one. Below are a few things you can do for yourself, and your loved one:

  • Remember to take care of yourself. Sleep when you can, eat healthy foods and drink plenty of water. You will not be able to take care of someone else if you aren’t taking care of yourself.
  • Find a friend or family member whom you can talk to, openly and honestly, throughout this time. 
  • Visit and talk with your loved one often. Find games or activities you can do together during your visits, such as playing cards or watching a favorite TV show.
  • Designate one friend or family member to share updates, progress and treatment with others. People will want to help and know how your loved one is doing. 
  • Identify tasks that your loved one can accomplish independently, and avoid doing them for him or her.
  • Talk to the care team to find out what your loved one will need at home, and begin preparing your home. 
  • Assign jobs to family and friends, like watering plants, feeding or walking pets, or mowing the grass. 
  • Make time for yourself. Schedule other people to spend time with your loved one so that you can take a break and do something you enjoy. 

Ask questions and discuss concerns with care team 

One of the best things you can do for your loved one is speak up and ask questions. Talk to the team treating your loved one whenever you have a question, a concern or a need for further explanation. If you have additional questions, you can also contact the Spine Center at St. Elizabeth at (859) 212-7000.