To understand the impact of a spinal contusion one must first understand the function of the spinal cord and how injury or trauma to the spinal cord can affect a person’s life. Spinal cord injuries can be very complex with complications that can last a lifetime. Among the various injuries, spinal contusions can occur as the result of a car accident, sports injury, or other impact type trauma.
The spinal cord is a complex group of nerves that run from the base of the skull down to the bottom of the spine, just above the tailbone. Within these nerves that communicate with the brain, is the human ability to feel, move, sense, react, and respond. The spinal cord is protected by the spine, a series of 33 delicate bones called vertebrae, running down the length of the back. A healthy spine allows us to move with agility, to process basic sensory information, and for our bodies to function normally. Any injury or trauma to the spinal cord or the spine itself can result in reduced or painful mobility, a reduction in sensation or ability to react – like pulling your hand away from a hot stove – or an inability for the body to regulate functions such as heart rate, breathing, elimination, or circulation.
How Spinal Cord Injuries Impact Lives
Spinal cord injuries can drastically impact a person’s way of life and their ability to live and move independently. The extent of injury depends on several factors, and can be anywhere on a scale that ranges from inconvenient to catastrophic. Injuries to the spinal cord that occur above C5, or the 5th cervical vertebrae can impact the ability to breathe and are considered among the most devastating type of injury.
Moving down the spinal cord, different functions can be affected. For example, injuries that occur at C6, the 6th cervical vertebrae, can cause paralysis from the chest down but still permit movement of the shoulder and arm muscle.
Most spinal cord injuries are the result of a fall or accident. As of 2016, there are an estimated 282,000 people in the United States currently living with spinal cord injuries, with approximately 17,000 new spinal cord injuries reported each year.
Diagnosing Spinal Contusions
Spinal contusion is the medical term used to describe trauma to the spinal cord that is the result of an impact that injures the cord and could best be analogous to a concussion. Most spinal contusions are the result of an injury in a motor vehicle accident. However, there are also reports of spinal contusions occurring as a result of high impact sports such as ice hockey, football, and horseback riding.
In medical terminology, a contusion is a bruise, and like bruises on other parts of the body, the spine can swell and become tender and painful until the contusion has healed. A spinal contusion can occur anywhere along the spine that has suffered impact. It can cause a variety of symptoms such as tingling or numbness in the limbs, a loss of or reduced sensation in different parts of the body, pain, discomfort, a feeling of weakness, and muscle spasms.
Because the spinal cord is made up of neurological pathways, a spinal contusion can affect the ability to speak or breathe, and can also present memory challenges to the patient. Any injury or trauma to the spinal cord should be immediately reported to a doctor or medical practitioner, as should any symptoms that may be indicative of spinal contusion.
Healing and Recovery from Spinal Contusion
Because any injury or trauma to the spinal cord can lead to serious, and in some cases life threatening, complications, medical attention should be the first course of action. Recovery from a contusion is entirely dependent on the extent of the initial trauma. Rest, physical therapy, or pharmaceutical drugs may be prescribed to allow the body to heal. More extensive contusions may require surgery or other invasive procedures that can alleviate pressure and swelling in the spinal cord.
Spinal contusions can be challenging to diagnose due to the different symptoms and indications that they present. Initially, a patient may feel only mild pain or discomfort, but as swelling increases, other symptoms such as numbness or speed impediments may occur. For this reason, it is important to seek immediate medical attention any time there is impact to the spine.
Because of the unique nature of spinal cord injuries and the different levels of complications that can be immediately present or arise over time, it is challenging to recommend or prescribe a uniform approach to healing. However, any trauma, no matter how seemingly insignificant, to the spinal cord, should be treated as a medical emergency and immediately referred to a medical professional.