The spinal cord is a structure consisting of nervous tissue that connects the brain to the body. It’s an essential part of how humans operate, as it sends signals from the brain to the rest of the body. It controls muscle movement, heart rate, and even body temperature. Unfortunately, despite the spinal cord being covered with protective tissue, it can still get injured. As you’d expect, damage to the spinal cord often results in debilitating symptoms, such as loss of movement and extreme pain.
Spinal Cord Injuries: Can They Heal?
A spinal cord injury means damage to the spinal cord and any surrounding, connected nerves, including the cauda equina (end of the spinal canal). Each spinal cord injury differs from the next, but all injuries affect a person’s quality of life. How much depends on the type of spinal cord injury.
The two main types of spinal cord injuries are complete vs. incomplete. A complete injury is the most severe, as it eliminates function below the injury and results in paralysis, such as tetraplegia and paraplegia. On the other hand, with an incomplete spinal cord injury, the brain can still send some signals. Still, the symptoms are challenging to deal with and significantly impact a person’s quality of life.
So, can a spinal cord injury heal?
Unfortunately, right now, the answer is no – spinal cord injuries are permanent. However, scientists embark on research every day, working hard to improve the outlook of those suffering from such a severe injury. Plus, there are plenty of ways to manage it and live a fulfilled life. Some people even recover some function naturally over time, although this is certainly not guaranteed.
What Are the Common Causes of a Spinal Cord Injury?
To prevent and understand a spinal cord injury, you should know the most common causes, which are:
- Sports Injuries
- Complications during surgery
- Road Accidents
Many types of injuries can result in spinal cord damage. The above are the most common, however – especially falls and road accidents, as they happen frequently.
Risk Factors of Spinal Cord Injuries
Some people are at a greater risk of sustaining a spinal cord injury than others. Below are the risk factors:
Being a Man
Men have a much higher chance of sustaining a spinal cord injury than women. In fact, around 80% of people with spinal cord injuries are men, whereas only 20% are women.
Being a Young Adult
Being a young adult – between the ages of sixteen and thirty – is also a risk factor. That might be because young adults often partake in more dangerous behaviors, such as extreme sports.
On the other side of the coin, being older in years (above sixty) can also increase your chances of damaging your spinal cord. That’s because you are more at risk of falls and osteoporosis in your elderly years.
Alcohol lowers inhibitions, resulting in people taking more risks than usual. That’s why so many spinal cord injuries occur after a person has drunk alcohol, making it a risk factor.
Osteoporosis affects the bones and joints and can increase a person’s risk of getting a spinal cord injury due to that.
Any risky activity generally increases a person’s chance of injuring themselves. That includes extreme sports, driving motorbikes (or other fast vehicles), and climbing high. These types of activities always come with risks, so it’s crucial to follow the rules rigidly and take caution at all times.
The leading cause of spinal cord damage is falls. While certain factors put you more at risk, it’s still important to remember that anyone can sustain a spinal cord injury.
The Symptoms of a Spinal Cord Injury
You might be shocked to learn that not everyone knows they have a spinal cord injury immediately. However, that doesn’t make it any less serious, as paralysis can occur gradually. As you’d expect, the symptoms vary depending on whether the spinal cord injury is complete or incomplete. Plus, it can affect different parts of the body depending on the spinal cord injury location. If you experience any of the symptoms listed below, it’s essential to seek immediate medical attention, as they are signs of a spinal cord injury.
- Arm or Leg Weakness
- A Loss of Sensation in Arm or Legs
- Losing the Ability to Breathe
- Pain in the Neck or Back
- Loss of Function of Bowel and/or Bladder
These symptoms are very serious, so you must seek treatment immediately. The sooner you do, the better your outlook will be.
Once you seek medical attention, the doctor will perform some tests to determine if it’s a spinal cord injury. It will likely involve them testing your nerves and motor/sensory functions. They may also call for imaging tests such as an x-ray, MRI, or CT scan.
What to Do if You Suspect a Spinal Cord Injury in Someone
You must immediately act if you suspect someone has sustained a spinal cord injury. First, call the emergency medical department. While waiting for someone to arrive, avoid moving the person – place heavy towels on either side of their neck to prevent them from moving their head. If there is any bleeding, try to stop that with pressure without moving their head or neck.
Treatments for spinal cord injuries can be split into two: immediate treatment and ongoing treatment.
Immediate treatment involves a corticosteroid injection, with the hope that it will reduce the loss of nerve function and inflammation as much as possible, improving the overall outlook. It needs to be administered within eight hours of the injury occurring. Immediate treatment may also involve surgery – although surgery can also be performed at a later date.
Ongoing treatment improves a person’s quality of life and overall health. With symptoms such as sexual dysfunction, paralysis, incontinence, and pain, this part is essential. For people with a spinal cord injury to live a happy and fulfilled life, certain management techniques and treatments are necessary.
Physical therapy or rehabilitation is a common treatment, but it might involve a lengthy hospital stay. During physical therapy or rehabilitation, the person learns how to use their mobility in different ways. For example, they might learn how to use a wheelchair.
Another treatment option is using artificial body parts – also called neural prostheses. This option is helpful for complete spinal cord injuries, as they can replace limbs that no longer function. Once attached, the person can use the other nerves in their body to control the artificial limb.
Most people with a spinal cord injury also get prescribed medication, especially pain medication, if their symptoms involve high levels of pain.
How Stem Cell Therapy Can Help a Spinal Cord Injury
Stem cell research only gets better by the day, and even right now, many patients with spinal cord injuries benefit from stem cell therapy. The treatment involves an injection, with the result being less pain. It can even slow down degeneration, improving the person’s overall outlook and quality of life. The great thing about stem cell therapy is that, unlike surgery, it involves little recovery time and there’s minimal risk.
Living with a Spinal Cord Injury
A spinal cord injury causes a serious impact on a person’s physical and mental well-being. It can change every aspect of your life, from where you work to your relationships. There are ways to manage, though. As well as seeking appropriate treatments, you should also reach out to your family, friends, and community members to help you along the way. You can also use physical therapy to learn how to use your body again. Remember – the help is out there, and you can live a full life with a spinal cord injury. It might also help to join a community group of others with similar injuries. It’s good to be around people who understand what you’re going through.
How to Prevent a Spinal Cord Injury
To prevent a spinal cord injury, you must avoid the behaviors/risks that often lead to such an injury. That means driving safely on the road, avoiding fall hazards, and wearing protective gear when partaking in sports. Always be careful when doing anything physical, especially if it’s intense activity, like an extreme sport. It’s all about looking after your body. Of course, accidents happen all the time, and you can’t always avoid injuries. However, with further research into treatments, more and more people can live rich and happy lives after such a traumatic incident.
There is not yet a cure for a spinal cord injury, and many of those who sustain one go about their lives without seeing much improvement in their nerve functions. However, some nerve cells can heal over time, and doctors/scientists embark on research every day to improve the prognosis of those with a spinal cord injury. Plus, there are plenty of management techniques to ensure spinal cord injury patients can lead happy, fulfilled, and productive lives.