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Rehab Insights is a blog written by Burke Rehabilitation professionals to offer practical information for patients, families and the community. Its goal is to educate the reader on relevant topics in rehabilitation, general health and wellness.

What Everyone Needs to Know About Spinal Cord Injury

July 1, 2013

Spinal cord injuries are a medical emergency. They can be happen in a split second and forever change the course of someone’s life. The most common cause of spinal cord damage is trauma. It can occur from falls, gunshot wounds, motor vehicle accidents, on-the-job accidents and sports injuries. Diving in shallow water is one of the most common sports injuries that can damage the spinal cord.

Graphic by Frank Jackson III/MEDILL based on data from The Chris and Dana Reeve Foundation, courtesy of Medill Reports, Medill School of Northwestern University. Graphic by Frank Jackson III/MEDILL based on data from The Chris and Dana Reeve Foundation, courtesy of the Medill School of Northwestern University. Click on image for larger version.

Direct injury, such as cuts, can occur to the spinal cord from broken vertebrae or foreign fragments entering the spinal cord or surrounding area. Direct damage can also occur if the spinal cord is pulled, pressed sideways or compressed. This may occur if the head, neck or back are pushed back or twisted abnormally during an accident. Bleeding, fluid buildup and swelling can also occur inside or outside the spinal cord. The swelling and buildup of blood or fluid can press on the spinal cord and also damage it.

Spinal cord injury happens to all age groups. Data from the 1970’s showed young men from 16 to 30 years old had the highest incidence of traumatic spinal cord injury.  The latest data from 2005 shows that the average age at injury is 41 years old.  An increase in trauma to middle-aged as well as to the senior age groups accounts for this dramatic rise in the average age of injury.

Today, however, with proper medical treatment and rehabilitation, people are living long and productive lives after sustaining a spinal cord injury.

If you are with someone that you think may have sustained a spinal cord injury, there are several things you should know. Symptoms vary depending on the location of the injury, but they usually display as weakness or loss of feeling at or below the injury site. How severe these symptoms are depends on whether the entire cord is severely injured (complete) or only partially injured (incomplete).

What You Need To Know:

  • Don't move the injured person — permanent paralysis may result.
  • Call 911 or your local emergency medical assistance number.
  • Keep the person still.
  • Support or hold the head and neck to prevent them from moving until emergency help arrives.
  • Provide basic first aid such as CPR, rescue breathing and stopping bleeding when necessary.
  • Make the person comfortable, without moving the head or neck.
  • Provide them with assurance that medical help is on the way.

Although the number of spinal cord injuries each year in the United States has remained about the same over the past several decades, what has changed is the survival rate. Immediate medical attention and proper rehabilitation after injury are the two best ways to ensure the best possible recovery.

— Argyrios Stampas, M.D.
Director, Spinal Cord Injury Program

Learn more about Burke’s Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation program.

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Burke's Rehab Insights blog is intended to provide general information about rehabilitation and other health care topics. It should not take the place of medical care. Burke staff cannot comment on individual medical cases or give medical advice.

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