Injuries to the Spinal Chord

Article published on 2nd June 2008

Spinal chord injuries (SCI's) are any injuries that damage the spinal chord in such a way as to cause loss of control or feeling in a part of the body.

Made from neurons (nerve cells that control sensory and motor functions) the spinal chord is a sort of an extension to the brain that runs down through the spinal column through the vertebrae, which usually protect the chord from damage. Its function is to pass on commands to move from the brain to the rest of the body and also to pass on sensations and feelings (like heat or pain) from the rest of the body to the brain for processing.

There are five different ‘types’ of injury that affect the spinal chord:

  1. Concussion. This is when a sudden, violent impact hurts the tissues surrounding the chord (like landing from a short jump with your legs locked straight). This sort of injury does not have to cause lasting damage and most such injuries fade after an hour or two.
  2. Bruises (spinal contusion). These cause bleeding along the spinal column which in turn can lead to a build up of pressure than may kill neurons and therefore damage the chord's ability to pass messages along its length.
  3. Compression. This is when something in the back puts pressure on the spinal chord - this could be a tumour or some other sort of growth, or even a damaged vertebrae.
  4. Tearing. This is when the chord is ripped to some degree or another, damaging the transmitter neurons.
  5. Severance. This is one of the most immediate and drastic injuries and it is literally when the spinal chord is cut in two and therefore unable to pass any signals past the point of the cut.

Although damaging the spinal chord is not easy, it is a relatively common occurrence in people who suffer traumatic impact to their spine. By far the vast majority of spinal chord injuries - an easy 50% - come from car accidents, while 20% result from bad falls and another 15% assaults and other violent acts. Sports related accidents account for 14% of injuries. Many of these come as a net result of alcohol and drug use.

There are diseases and infections that can damage the spinal chord (like multiple sclerosis and cervical spondylosis) but these risks tend to be identified along with the diagnosis of the conditions.

A damaged spine can result in anything from temporarily impaired motor functions (such as walking or lifting) to complete paralysis, depending on the severity of the case. In the worst cases home care would probably have to be arranged for, which can prove to be quite an expense.

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