A spinal cord injury is life-altering and can cause you or someone you love a great deal of pain, stress, grief and uncertainty about the future. At a minimum, spinal cord injuries (SCIs) can take months to recover from, and many who suffer from an SCI aren’t as lucky. If you have suffered an SCI, you are not alone. According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, there are over 270,000 individuals in the United States dealing with spinal cord injury. There are about 17,500 new cases every year.
What is a Spinal Cord Injury?
The spinal cord is the central passage for signals from the brain to the rest of the body. Whenever that passage is damaged, functions, sensory ability and motor control over different parts of the body are affected. Most SCIs are a result of a traumatic impact to the body, like a car accident or a significant fall, although some can come from an internal source such as an infection or cancer around the spine.
The severity of a spinal cord injury classifies as complete or incomplete. A complete SCI is when the spinal cord has been severed or compressed beyond repair. This most likely results in a loss of any movement or function at or below the point of damage. An incomplete SCI is when one side or part of the spinal cord is damaged. This type of injury causes a partial loss of function or control over different parts of the body and has a higher rate of recovery.
Four sections of the spine can be affected by an injury. The higher the damage is on the spinal cord, the less mobility you are likely to have. Each area sends signals to separate regions in the body. The spinal sections are:
- Cervical: This is the highest region of the spine; it accounts for the first seven vertebrae from the skull to the shoulders. Injuries to the cervical spine region usually result in limited to no feeling from the neck and shoulder down, also known as tetraplegia. While all SCIs are serious, damage to the cervical spine has the most long-term effects and is difficult to treat.
- Thoracic: The thoracic spine is in the upper to middle back. Injuries to this section usually result in paraplegia, but there is a wide variety of severity and amount of mobility in this region. Some sustain an injury to this area and can use a manual wheelchair, drive a modified car or, with time and training, walk with braces.
- Lumbar: The lowest major part of the spinal cord, injuries to the lumbar spine cause loss of some functionality to the hips and legs. The upper body remains mostly unaffected. Most people who suffer a lumbar SCI can have some mobility either with manual wheelchairs or walking braces.
- Sacral: While all SCIs are serious, injuries to the sacral spine are the least immobilizing and tend to have the least extensive recovery. The sacral spinal cord controls function to the buttocks, thighs and organs in the pelvic region.
Do I Have a Spinal Cord Injury?
It is usually apparent if you have received a spinal cord injury. However, there are some warning signs if the SCI is not noticeable right away. Some of the symptoms include:
- Pain or pressure to the head or back
- Weakness, loss of coordination and partial paralysis
- Numbness and tingling feeling in hands, feet and toes
- Loss of bladder or bowel movement control
- Difficulty walking or moving
- Abnormal lumps on the head, neck or spine
- Impaired breathing
How Do I Cope With SCI?
After having a life-changing injury, it is natural to feel overwhelmed and believe there is nothing you can do, but that isn’t the case. After going through the grieving process of a spinal cord injury, regardless of severity, there are avenues for you to take to get your life back on track. Since the damage can vary greatly, there isn’t a one size fits all solution for an SCI.
The first step should be consulting with your doctor about what treatment and recovery plans are available to you. Then, become educated on the subject. Reading informational blogs, such as this one, or other SCI survivors’ stories and how they have worked towards recovery can be incredibly helpful.
Depending on the severity of the spinal cord injury, you may be able to recover through means like physical therapy, surgery or traction treatment. While an exact timeline may be difficult to obtain, some people with incomplete SCIs can restore many of their movements and functions within months to a little over a year.
Wherever you are in the process, it’s essential to take as much control of the situation as you can. Setting personal goals and contacting legal help are two great ways to do that.
Are you living with the effects of a spinal cord injury?