Understanding Spinal Cord Injuries

The spinal cord is a part of the central nervous system, along with the brain. Your brain and your body communicate by sending signals through the spinal cord. When the spinal cord suffers an injury, it affects the ability of your brain and body to communicate.

Causes of Spinal Cord Injuries

Spinal cord injuries are usually categorized as either traumatic or atraumatic. Common causes of traumatic spinal cord injuries include car accidents, falls, and unfortunately, acts of violence. Atraumatic spinal cord injuries can be caused by things like infections, abscesses or even cancer.

Risk Factors

There are a number of risk factors for spinal cord injury. Men are much more likely than women to suffer a spinal cord injury. About 80% of those who suffer a spinal cord injury are male. Age is another risk factor. Spinal cord injuries occur more often in individuals between the ages of 16 and 30. But there is also a non-demographic risk factor: engaging in risky behavior. Unsurprisingly, this largely surrounds alcohol intake. Consuming too much alcohol increases your risk of suffering a spinal cord injury. Remember, never operate a vehicle if you’ve been drinking.

How are Spinal Cord Injuries Classified?

Spinal cord injuries are classified in a few different ways. One is the level of injury. This ranges from the cervical spine in your neck down to the lumbar spine in your lower back. Injuries can happen anywhere along the spinal cord. The location of the injury will impact how it affects a person. Typically, the higher up an injury occurs, the more impairments you will see. There are nerves coming off the cervical spine that help innervate your arms and your hands. The lower down in the spinal cord an injury occurs, the lower the impairments.

Additionally, spinal cord injuries are classified by how complete the injury is. A complete injury results in the patient having no sensation or motor function below the level of injury. With an incomplete injury, the patient retains some muscle activation below the injury. They may also have some sensation remaining.

Treating a Spinal Cord Injury

Physical therapy focuses on treating the injury with the goal of improving the patient’s mobility. That might mean getting in-and-out of bed or a wheelchair or propelling a wheelchair. Occupational therapy focuses on helping individuals with daily tasks. These include dressing, bathing, and cooking.

Another important component of recovery is working with the patient’s family. Educating and training the family should be a part of any rehabilitation program. This not only helps the patient with their day-to-day lives, but also with preventing the secondary effects of spinal cord injuries.

Taylor Carlson PT, DPT is a physical therapist at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Northern Arizona. Taylor recently graduated from Northern Arizona University with his Doctorate degree in Physical Therapy. Taylor enjoys working and treating all patients and diagnoses, but especially patients with spinal cord injuries and other neurologic conditions. While currently gaining clinical experience, Taylor would like to pursue his Neurologic Certified Specialist (NCS) certification. Taylor enjoys staying active, being outdoors, and spending time with family and friends.