Spinal cord injury – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic

By LizaAVILA

Overview

A spinal cord injury damage to any part of the spinal cord or nerves at the end of the spinal canal (cauda equina) often causes permanent changes in strength, sensation and other body functions below the site of the injury.

If you’ve recently experienced a spinal cord injury, it might seem like every aspect of your life has been affected. You might feel the effects of your injury mentally, emotionally and socially.

Many scientists are optimistic that advances in research will someday make the repair of spinal cord injuries possible. Research studies are ongoing around the world. In the meantime, treatments and rehabilitation allow many people with spinal cord injuries to lead productive, independent lives.

Your ability to control your limbs after a spinal cord injury depends on two factors: the place of the injury along your spinal cord and the severity of injury to the spinal cord.

The lowest normal part of your spinal cord is referred to as the neurological level of your injury. The severity of the injury is often called “the completeness” and is classified as either of the following:

Additionally, paralysis from a spinal cord injury may be referred to as:

Your health care team will perform a series of tests to determine the neurological level and completeness of your injury.

Spinal cord injuries of any kind may result in one or more of the following signs and symptoms:

Emergency signs and symptoms of a spinal cord injury after an accident may include:

Anyone who experiences significant trauma to his or her head or neck needs immediate medical evaluation for the possibility of a spinal injury. In fact, it’s safest to assume that trauma victims have a spinal injury until proved otherwise because:

Spinal cord injuries may result from damage to the vertebrae, ligaments or disks of the spinal column or to the spinal cord itself.

A traumatic spinal cord injury may stem from a sudden, traumatic blow to your spine that fractures, dislocates, crushes or compresses one or more of your vertebrae. It also may result from a gunshot or knife wound that penetrates and cuts your spinal cord.

Additional damage usually occurs over days or weeks because of bleeding, swelling, inflammation and fluid accumulation in and around your spinal cord.

A nontraumatic spinal cord injury may be caused by arthritis, cancer, inflammation, infections or disk degeneration of the spine.

The central nervous system comprises the brain and spinal cord. The spinal cord, made of soft tissue and surrounded by bones (vertebrae), extends downward from the base of your brain and is made up of nerve cells and groups of nerves called tracts, which go to different parts of your body.

The lower end of your spinal cord stops a little above your waist in the region called the conus medullaris. Below this region is a group of nerve roots called the cauda equina.

Tracts in your spinal cord carry messages between the brain and the rest of the body. Motor tracts carry signals from the brain to control muscle movement. Sensory tracts carry signals from body parts to the brain relating to heat, cold, pressure, pain and the position of your limbs.

Whether the cause is traumatic or nontraumatic, the damage affects the nerve fibers passing through the injured area and may impair part or all of your corresponding muscles and nerves below the injury site.

A chest (thoracic) or lower back (lumbar) injury can affect your torso, legs, bowel and bladder control, and sexual function. A neck (cervical) injury affects the same areas in addition to affecting movements of your arms and, possibly, your ability to breathe.

The most common causes of spinal cord injuries in the United States are:

Although a spinal cord injury is usually the result of an accident and can happen to anyone, certain factors may predispose you to a higher risk of sustaining a spinal cord injury, including:

At first, changes in the way your body functions may be overwhelming. However, your rehabilitation team will help you develop the tools you need to address the changes caused by the spinal cord injury, in addition to recommending equipment and resources to promote quality of life and independence. Areas often affected include:

Bladder control. Your bladder will continue to store urine from your kidneys. However, your brain may not be able to control your bladder as well because the message carrier (the spinal cord) has been injured.

The changes in bladder control increase your risk of urinary tract infections. The changes also may cause kidney infections and kidney or bladder stones. During rehabilitation, you’ll learn new techniques to help empty your bladder.

Skin sensation. Below the neurological level of your injury, you may have lost part of or all skin sensations. Therefore, your skin can’t send a message to your brain when it’s injured by certain things such as prolonged pressure, heat or cold.

This can make you more susceptible to pressure sores, but changing positions frequently with help, if needed can help prevent these sores. You’ll learn proper skin care during rehabilitation, which can help you avoid these problems.

Circulatory control. A spinal cord injury may cause circulatory problems ranging from low blood pressure when you rise (orthostatic hypotension) to swelling of your extremities. These circulation changes may also increase your risk of developing blood clots, such as deep vein thrombosis or a pulmonary embolus.

Another problem with circulatory control is a potentially life-threatening rise in blood pressure (autonomic hyperreflexia). Your rehabilitation team will teach you how to address these problems if they affect you.

Respiratory system. Your injury may make it more difficult to breathe and cough if your abdominal and chest muscles are affected. These include the diaphragm and the muscles in your chest wall and abdomen.

Your neurological level of injury will determine what kind of breathing problems you may have. If you have a cervical and thoracic spinal cord injury, you may have an increased risk of pneumonia or other lung problems. Medications and therapy can help prevent and treat these problems.

Fitness and wellness. Weight loss and muscle atrophy are common soon after a spinal cord injury. Limited mobility may lead to a more sedentary lifestyle, placing you at risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

A dietitian can help you eat a nutritious diet to sustain an adequate weight. Physical and occupational therapists can help you develop a fitness and exercise program.

Following this advice may reduce your risk of a spinal cord injury:

Drive safely. Car crashes are one of the most common causes of spinal cord injuries. Wear a seat belt every time you drive or ride in a car.

Make sure that your children wear a seat belt or use an age- and weight-appropriate child safety seat. To protect them from air bag injuries, children under age 12 should always ride in the back seat.

Dec. 19, 2017

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Spinal cord injury – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic

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