What Is a Spinal Cord Injury?

Spinal Cord Injury

A spinal cord injury is damage to the soft tissue of the spinal cord itself. Acute spinal cord injury can result in a bruise ("contusion"), a partial tear, or a complete tear ("transection") and may affect a person's ability to feel, move, or walk. Trauma to the spinal cord requires a visit to the emergency room for immediate care from an experienced team to ensure the best chance of a successful recovery. 

Causes of spinal cord injury

Car accidents and falls are the most common causes of spinal cord injury, followed by:

  • Gunshot and knife wounds
  • Motorcycle crashes
  • Falls from height or ground level falls with head trauma
  • Diving accidents that cause cervical spinal cord injury
  • Medical/surgical complications

You can reduce your risk of spinal cord injuries by wearing seatbelts while driving, avoiding driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle or bicycle, avoiding diving into lakes and rivers of unknown depth or underwater debris, and keeping firearms locked away and safe. Lower the chance of falling in your home by securing or avoiding throw rugs, maintaining good lighting, and installing railings and grab bars wherever the risk of a fall is possible (such as stairs and bathtubs).

Spinal cord injury symptoms

The symptoms of a spinal cord injury will depend on its location and severity. In general, symptoms are more severe for injuries in the upper spinal cord, which can affect respiratory muscles, heart rate, and the ability to breathe. An injury in the lower part of the cord may affect bladder, bowel, and sexual function as well as sensation and movement in the legs.

If you have had an accident, see a doctor right away if you have any symptoms of a spinal cord injury, even if you think they are mild. Emergency treatment should be sought for:

  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Weakness, paralysis, or loss of coordination or balance
  • Tingling, numbness, or other loss of sensation in your hands or feet
  • Trouble breathing
  • Severe pain or pressure in your back, neck, or head

What Is a Vertebral Fracture?

Vertebral Fracture

A vertebral fracture is a break in one or more bones that make up the spine. The fracture may only affect the bone or may also cause a tear in the spinal cord. Vertebral fractures are classified as:

  • Compression fractures, caused by osteoporosis, a tumor, or other disorder that weakens the spine.
  • Burst fractures, where a vertebra shatters in multiple directions
  • "Chance" fractures, which happen when there is excessive flexion (bending) of the spine in one direction.
  • Stress fractures (spondylolysis) occur in some athletes who bend their spine backward excessively when landing from a jump or when lifting heavy weights.

Causes of vertebral fracture

Compression fractures happen when a vertebra becomes weakened by a condition such as osteoporosis, a tumor, or another disease. Burst and chance fractures are due to physical trauma, such as that sustained during:

  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • A fall from a high height
  • Violence, such as a gunshot wound
  • Sports injuries

Vertebral fracture symptoms

The most common symptom of a fractured vertebra is back pain, which usually worsens with movement. You may also experience:

  • Numbness or tingling
  • Weakness or loss of sensation
  • Loss of bowel or bladder function
  • Muscle spasms
  • Loss of height
  • Hunched back (kyphosis)

These symptoms could also have other causes. It is best to see a spine specialist for an examination and evaluation to learn what is causing your symptoms so you can start treatment and prevent complications.

What Is a Spinal Infection?

Spinal Infection

Bacteria, viruses, and fungi can cause infection in the spinal cord or the vertebrae. When the bones become infected, it is called "osteomyelitis." The spinal discs, spinal cord lining (meninges), and nearby soft tissues can also become infected when a foreign organism takes root and continues to grow.

How do you get a spinal infection?

Many spinal infections happen after surgery, such as an infection after spinal fusion surgery. Osteomyelitis may develop if the spine is exposed due to an open traumatic injury or when bacteria spread to the bones through the bloodstream. Some urologic surgery and dental procedures increase the risk of bacteria entering the blood and traveling to the spine. Someone can also get a spinal infection from intravenous drug use, malnutrition, or cancer.

Spinal infection symptoms

Most often, spinal infections cause pain around the infection site. Other symptoms vary depending on the type and location of the infection and may include:

  • Redness, drainage, or swelling around a surgical incision
  • Severe back pain
  • Fever and chills
  • Loss of bowel function
  • Problems with urination
  • Muscle spasms or weakness
  • Numbness, tingling, or other impaired sensation

If you have any of these symptoms, contact your doctor right away.