Spinal Injury

A spinal cord injury (SCI) is damage to the spinal cord that causes temporary or permanent changes in its function. Symptoms may include loss of muscle function, sensation, or autonomic function in the parts of the body served by the spinal cord below the level of the injury. Injury can occur at any level of the spinal cord and can be complete, with a total loss of sensation and muscle function at lower sacral segments, or incomplete, meaning some nervous signals are able to travel past the injured area of the cord up to the Sacral S4-5 spinal cord segments. Depending on the location and severity of damage, the symptoms vary, from numbness to paralysis, including bowel or bladder incontinence. Long term outcomes also range widely, from full recovery to permanent tetraplegia (also called quadriplegia) or paraplegia. Complications can include muscle atrophy, loss of voluntary motor control, spasticity, pressure sores, infections, and breathing problems.

In the majority of cases the damage results from physical trauma such as car accidents, gunshot wounds, falls, or sports injuries, but it can also result from nontraumatic causes such as infection, insufficient blood flow, and tumors. Just over half of injuries affect the cervical spine, while 15% occur in each of the thoracic spine, border between the thoracic and lumbar spine, and lumbar spine alone. Diagnosis is typically based on symptoms and medical imaging.

Efforts to prevent SCI include individual measures such as using safety equipment, societal measures such as safety regulations in sports and traffic, and improvements to equipment. Treatment starts with restricting further motion of the spine and maintaining adequate blood pressure. Corticosteroids have not been found to be useful. Other interventions vary depending on the location and extent of the injury, from bed rest to surgery. In many cases, spinal cord injuries require long-term physical and occupational therapy, especially if it interferes with activities of daily living.

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