The spinal cord connects the base of the brain to the nerves of the body. It is surrounded by a protective bony canal called the spinal column, also known as the spine or backbone.
A spinal cord injury happens when the spinal column is fractured or when the ligaments holding the spine together fall out of place. The spinal cord within the spinal canal may become bruised or crushed. The damaged nerve pathways cannot properly send messages to other parts of the body, which may cause loss of sensation and muscle control.
The extent of the damage depends on the location of the injury along the spine. A complete spinal cord injury is when the spinal cord is cut all the way through. When this occurs, the patient has no feeling and cannot move below the level of the injury. In an incomplete injury, the patient has some feeling or movement below the level of the injury, and there is little damage to the spinal cord.
Treatment for spinal cord injuries depends on the extent, type, and location of the injury. At UPMC, we typically begin treatment with rest, analgesics and muscle-relaxing agents until swelling and pain have subsided. Corticosteroids are often started within eight hours of a spinal cord injury. Surgical fusion is often necessary to insure proper alignment, and decompression may help improve neurological symptoms in patients with incomplete cord injuries.
To determine the extent of the spinal cord injury, the doctor will test a patient’s strength and movement of specific muscles, ability to feel light touch and a pinprick in key areas of the body, and ability to feel pressure at the anus and rectum. CT scans, MRI, and x-rays are all used to identify the problem area.
Symptoms of spinal cord injuries vary depending on the extent and location of the injury. Potential symptoms may include:
Treatment for spinal cord injuries depends on the extent, type, and location of the injury. At UPMC, we focus on preventing further injury and providing rehabilitation for patients with these injuries so they may return to an active and productive life.
Treatment usually begins with rest, analgesics and muscle-relaxing agents until swelling and pain have subsided. Corticosteroids are often started within eight hours of a spinal cord injury, which may reduce neurological damage in blunt injuries. Traction may be used to stabilize the spine or to bring it into proper alignment. In some cases, a rigid neck collar, or metal braces attached to a body harness or weights are used to immobilize the spine and keep the skull from moving. Physical therapy and rehabilitation may begin as soon as the patient’s condition is stable.
The type of surgery depends on the extent and location of the spinal cord injury. Specialists at UPMC have extensive training and experience with minimally invasive spinal surgery and state-of-the-art technologies to treat spinal cord injuries. Surgery is often necessary to remove fragments of bone, foreign objects, herniated discs, or fractured vertebrae that are compressing the spine. Surgery may also be needed to stabilize the spine and prevent further damage and pain.