Spinal trauma is an injury to the spinal column, which may also include the bones, blood vessels and tissue of the spine. It may cause injury directly to the spine, or it may injure the neck or other surrounding structures. Spinal trauma can lead to a fracture or dislocation of one or more of the vertebrae, as well as bleeding, swelling and inflammation within the spinal cord. It can occur as a result of numerous different factors, including a fall, motor vehicle accident, sports injury or violent encounter.
Even a minor injury can cause spinal trauma in some cases if there is a pre-existing spine issue such as osteoporosis or spinal stenosis, and if the force acting on the spine is delivered in just the right way to exceed the physiological tolerance of the bone, disc, or ligaments. In otherwise healthy individuals, spinal trauma usually takes place when there is direct, damaging impact to the spine. The spinal cord or nerves may be affected if a fragment of bone or herniated disc impinges on them.
Spinal trauma most commonly occurs in boys and men between the ages of 15 and 35. The greatest risk factors are taking part in unsafe physical activities, failure to wear protective gear when it is warranted, diving into shallow bodies of water, and motor vehicle accidents.
Spinal Trauma Symptoms
When a spinal trauma has taken place, the symptoms will vary depending on the exact location of the injury. Patients typically will experience pain at the area of the site of the injury. If injury to the spinal cord or nerve roots has occurred, those symptoms will vary depending on the location and severity of the injury.
If the injury is to the cervical (neck) area, the arms, legs and midsection of the body may be affected. The symptoms may include breathing difficulties, loss of bladder and bowel control, pain, weakness or paralysis, numbness and spasticity. These symptoms may be present on one or both sides of the body.
When the injury is thoracic (chest area), the symptoms predominantly affect the lower half of the body, resulting in numbness, weakness or paralysis, pain, loss of bladder and bowel control, spasticity, blood pressure difficulties, increased sweating and body temperature fluctuations from the level of the injury down.
In a lumbar (lower back) injury, one or both legs and sometimes the muscles controlling the bladder and bowel can be impacted. Common symptoms include pain, numbness, weakness or paralysis, spasticity and loss of bladder and bowel control.
To evaluate spinal trauma, a detailed examination is given and obtain a more detailed view of the spine, your doctor will most likely perform a series of imaging exams, including x-rays, CT scans, and MRI.
A neurological exam may be performed as well to test muscle strength and sensation to both light touch and a pinprick. This can help the physician pinpoint the precise location of the injury. Motor function in each of the extremities will most likely be checked as well. Trauma to the spine is always a possibility when an injury involves the head or pelvis, in many automobile accidents, and in incidents where one has fallen from a height or was diving into water.
Treatment for a spinal trauma injury will vary depending on each patient’s individual condition, but often includes medication to reduce nerve damage. Corticosteroids may be used to decrease swelling that can do damage to the spinal cord. Use of a brace for immobilization of the spine or bed rest may promote healing. Surgery is sometimes necessary to remove bone fragments or herniated disks from the spinal canal, or to stabilize an unstable spine.
Physical rehabilitation is highly recommended after a spinal trauma. Exercises to strengthen the muscles and also keep them flexible are essential. When paralysis is involved, therapy may involve learning to use assistive devices such as braces, a walker or a wheelchair to maximize mobility.
Both physical therapy and long-term medication use can help manage the effects and minimize complications associated with spinal trauma. While there is no way to reverse spinal cord damage, many patients can relieve symptoms and restore functionality through a personalized treatment plan.