What is an Acute Spinal Cord Injury?

Acute spinal cord injury (SCI) is a traumatic injury that bruises, partially tears, or completely tears the spinal cord. It is caused a spontaneous event rather than wear and tear over time.

The spine is a well-orchestrated structure made of many bones called vertebrae designed to protect your spinal cord, which runs downward through a canal in the center of these bones. The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that carries messages between the brain and the rest of the body for movement and sensation.

Causes of an Acute Spinal Cord Injury

Many traumas can cause SCI. Any injury that bends or compresses the spine drastically is considered harmful, including:

  • Falls
  • Motor vehicle accidents (automobiles, motorcycles, and being struck as a pedestrian)
  • Sports injuries
  • Diving accidents
  • Trampoline accidents
  • Violence (gunshot or stab wounds)
  • Infections that form an abscess on the spinal cord
  • Birth injuries, which typically affect the spinal cord in the neck area

Who is at Risk for Acute Spinal Cord Injury?

As in all things to do with different bodies, some people are at higher risk than others.

  • 42 years old is average age at the time of injury
  • Predominantly non-Hispanic white males.

Symptoms of an Acute Spinal Cord Injury

The location of the injury on the spinal cord is key in determining what part of the body is affected and how severe the symptoms. Generally, the higher up the level of the injury is to the spinal cord, the more severe the symptoms.

A higher or mid-cervical vertebrae affects the respiratory muscles and the ability to breathe, while a lower injury may affect nerve and muscle control to the bladder, bowel, and legs, and sexual function. The extent of the damage to the spinal cord determines whether the injury is complete or incomplete.

  • A complete injury means that there is no movement or feeling below the level of the injury.
  • An incomplete injury means that there is still some degree of feeling or movement below the level of the injury.
  • Quadriplegia is loss of function in the arms and legs.
  • Paraplegia is loss of function in the legs and lower body.

These are the most common symptoms of acute spinal cord injuries:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of voluntary muscle movement in the chest, arms, or legs
  • Breathing problems
  • Loss of feeling in the chest, arms, or legs
  • Loss of bowel and bladder function

How are Acute Spinal Cord Injuries Diagnosed?

Any injury to the spine is a medical emergency. Emergency evaluation is needed anytime there is a suspected injury to the spinal cord.

Diagnostic Tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • X-ray
  • Computed tomography scan (also called a CT or CAT scan)
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

How is an acute spinal cord injury treated?

SCI requires emergency medical attention on the scene of the accident or injury. After an injury, your head and neck will be immobilized to prevent movement. This may be very hard when you are frightened after a serious accident.

There is currently no way to repair a damaged or bruised spinal cord. But, researchers are actively seeking ways to stimulate spinal cord regeneration. The severity of the SCI and the location determines if the SCI is mild, severe, or fatal.

Living with an Acute Spinal Cord Injury

Physical therapy is a very important part of rehabilitation. Specialists work with patients to prevent muscle wasting and contractures, and to help retrain other muscles to aid in mobility and movement. Another type of therapy is occupational therapy, which helps patients learn new ways of doing everyday tasks with their new physical limitations in consideration.

Mental health help should also be part of therapy as patients often need help when adjusting to life with spinal cord injury.

Complications of Spinal Cord Injury:

  • Skin sores or infections
  • Trouble breathing
  • Fever, cough, or other signs of infection
  • Severe headache
  • Not urinating regularly or having severe diarrhea or constipation
  • Severe muscle cramps or spasms
  • Increasing pain
COVID-19 Assessment Tool