An estimated 12,500 spinal cord injuries occur in the U.S. every year, leaving the injured people, their friends, and their family, to cope with the aftermath of the catastrophe. For many, navigating the challenges of the health care system can feel a bit like going to medical school. Suddenly you're learning a veritable cornucopia of new terms, and may be spending endless hours Googling spinal cord anatomy to fill in the gaps in your knowledge.
An educated patient is better equipped to advocate for his or her needs and interests. An education in spinal cord anatomy helps you understand what your doctor is saying, ask intelligent questions, and detect medical errors before they endanger your health.
Though you might think of your spinal cord as one single piece, it's actually a column of nerves protected by a sheath of myelin and then further secured by 31 butterfly-shaped vertebrae (singular: vertebra).
Medical providers divide the spinal cord into four distinct regions. Knowing the region in which the injury is located is often the key to understanding diagnosis and treatment. The four spinal cord regions are:
All spinal cord injuries are divided into two broad categories: incomplete and complete.
Incomplete spinal cord injuries are increasingly common, thanks in part to better treatment and increased knowledge about how to respond—and how not to respond—to a suspected spinal cord injury. These injuries now account for more than 60% of spinal cord injuries, which means we're making real progress toward better treatment and better outcomes.
Some of the most common types of incomplete or partial spinal cord injuries include:
Knowing the location of your injury and whether or not the injury is complete can help you begin researching your prognosis and asking your doctor intelligent questions. Doctors assign different labels to spinal cord injuries depending upon the nature of those injuries. The most common types of spinal cord injuries include:
Injuries below the lumbar spinal cord do not typically produce symptoms of paralysis or loss of sensation. They can, however, produce nerve pain, reduce function in some areas of the body, and necessitate several surgeries to regain function. Injuries to the sacral spinal cord, for instance, can interfere with bowel and bladder function, cause sexual problems, and produce weakness in the hips or legs. In vary rare cases, sacral spinal cord injury survivors suffer temporary or partial paralysis.
A spinal cord injury is not the sort of thing you have to wonder about having. If you've suffered a spinal cord injury, your life is in danger, and you'll know you're injured. You can't use symptoms to diagnose the sort of spinal cord injury you have, and every patient's prognosis is different. Some make a miraculous recovery within months; others need years of physical therapy and still make little to no progress.
The outcome depends on the nature of the injury, the quality of medical care you receive, the degree to which you work at your own recovery by adopting a healthy lifestyle, your psychological health, luck, and innumerable other factors.
A partial list of common spinal cord injury symptoms includes:
Doctors usually decide to assess patients for spinal cord injuries based on two factors: the location and type of injury a patient has sustained, and his or her symptoms. Anyone who has fallen, suffered a blow, or lost consciousness may have suffered a spinal cord injury. If you also experience headaches, loss of movement, tingling, difficulty moving, or difficulty breathing, your doctor may decide to assess you for a spinal cord injury.
No single test can assess all spinal cord injuries. Instead, doctors rely on a variety of protocols, including:
Unlike with many other injuries, the most important component of spinal cord injury treatment begins before you even get to the doctor. Remaining still, avoiding moving your spinal column, and prompt emergency care, can all increase the odds that you survive, while minimizing the long-term effects of your injury.
From there, doctors will focus on stabilizing you, since the first hours after a spinal cord injury are critical to a patient's survival. Assistance with breathing, a collar to keep your neck still, blood transfusions, and other procedures to address your immediate symptoms may be necessary.
Thereafter, your doctor will work with you and your family to construct a detailed plan for addressing your injuries. Every family and every injury are different, but treatment for a spinal cord injury may involve:
Spinal cord injuries are traumatic for patients and their families. They cause disruptive changes to every aspect of your life and there is a lot of new information to navigate and understand. Our experts have collected everything in one place to help you learn more about your injury, locate doctors and treatment centers, find financial support, and get assistance navigating your next move.