The spinal cord is the conduit of the central nervous system. It carries information from the brain to all parts of the body and back again, allowing us to move, react, feel, and respond. Therefore, any injury or damage to the spinal cord can affect our sensory ability, motor function and reflex capability.  Spinal cord injuries can be catastrophic or inconvenient, depending on the location and significance of the trauma. Studies suggest that there are over 17,500 spinal cord injuries every year, and that some 300,000 people in the United States are currently living with a spinal cord injury.

What Exactly Does the Spinal Cord Do?

Spinal cord function keeps us alive. The neurons that tell our bodies to breathe, to pump blood, to eat and drink, to run if we are being chased by a tiger, are all housed in the spinal cord, which is protected by delicate bones called vertebrae. This is the spine. When there is injury or trauma to the spinal cord, our bodies get mixed messages, or no message at all. A mixed message can be pain or irritation in one part of the body. Or it can be elevated or suppressed blood pressure. No message is what would happen if the injury caused such severe nerve damage that paralysis or loss of movement set it.

How Does Spinal Shock Occur?

Most spinal cord injuries are a result of a fall or physical trauma. Spinal shock is no different, but the signs and symptoms of spinal shock and can occur when the nerves and reflexes below the area of trauma or injury are unable to respond to stimuli. Spinal shock can also refer to “automatic dysfunction” which refers to impeded reflexes of the automatic nervous system that control functions such as blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory capability.

Spinal Shock, in its most simple definition, is a shock to the spinal cord that can cause temporary loss of or reduction in reflex, sensation, and/or movement. Imagine being temporarily paralyzed, or unable to respond reflexively to stimulus. This is what spinal shock can feel like, only the duration of the paralysis or loss of/or reduction in sensation is unknown, and can last anywhere from a few minutes to several days or weeks.

Spinal Shock vs Neurogenic Shock: What Is the Difference?

While some of the symptoms of spinal shock, such as low blood pressure or a significantly slowed heart rate, may be similar to the symptoms of neurogenic shock, the primary difference is that neurogenic shock typically results when injury occurs above a specific area of the spinal cord, in this case T6, or the sixth thoracic vertebrae. Spinal shock, on the other hand, can be a result of injury at any point along the spinal cord.

Another type of injury or trauma can be a spinal contusion. Contusion is the medical term for bruise, and like any bruise, a spinal contusion can result in swelling, pain and localized discomfort. Generally spinal contusions require rest and ice to heal. The intensity of pain and time required for recovery can vary greatly between individuals, and of course depend on the extent of the trauma. Rarely does a spinal contusion lead to spinal shock, but depending on the nature of the injury, spinal shock may be accompanied by a spinal contusion.

Recovery from Spinal Shock

Recovery from spinal shock may occur in a few days or a few weeks.  Some patients exhibit the opposite reaction as healing occurs. For example, if blood pressure was reduced as a result of the spinal shock, recovery may be accompanied by elevated blood pressure and/or body temperature. A heightened sensory response may occur where previously there was little or no sensation.

Spinal shock may be a temporary condition in a patient who has experienced some type of spinal cord injury or trauma, or it can be the precursor to a more significant spinal cord injury. While most diagnosed cases of spinal shock do not lead to permanent paralysis, in some circumstances the spinal cord may degenerate further, leading to paralysis.

What The Future Hold for Spinal Cord Injuries

Like individuals, spinal cord injuries are unique. The diagnosis the injury may have shared characteristics and similarities, the patient’s ability to respond, adapt and heal can vary greatly from person to person.  While there is a significant amount of information about the spinal cord and how trauma can impact it, continued research illuminates new information daily.

Medical advances in stem cell therapy could one day reverse full or partial paralysis in some patients. Furthermore, research about physical therapy, rehabilitative therapy, and neurological regeneration may be able to dramatically improve the quality of life for the hundreds of thousands of patients who suffer from spinal cord injuries.

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