The spinal cord contains the nerves that carry messages between your brain and the rest of the body. The cord passes through your neck and back. Damage to your spinal cord can occur when its blood and oxygen supply is disrupted and/or pressure is applied to it.
Frequent causes of damage are traumatic accidents such as motor vehicle incidents, falls, violence and sports activities. There are also many diseases that can cause spinal cord injury such as transverse myelitis, multiple sclerosis, cervical myelopathy, infections, tumours, disturbance to the blood supply and motor neurone disease.
Watch this video from New Zealand Spinal Trust explaining about spinal injury.
The symptoms experienced are different for everyone and depend on the level at which the spinal cord is damaged. They can include:
loss of feeling or numbness
loss of mobility (motor function)
loss of bowel or bladder control
loss of temperature control
severe pain in your neck, head or back
paralysis or difficulty with balance or walking
oddly positioned or twisted neck or back
difficulty breathing at higher levels near your neck.
A physical examination is often the first test that is performed. The doctor may assess your muscle tone, strength, reflexes and your ability to sense touch and pin-prick. Other common tests doctors may use to assist diagnosis include:
Complete – When your spinal cord is completely damaged and there is total loss of feeling and the ability to control movement below the injury.
Incomplete – When there is some movement and/or sensation below the injury. Types of incomplete spinal cord injury include conditions such as brown sequard syndrome, central cord syndrome, posterior cord syndrome and anterior cord syndrome.
When a spinal injury causes paralysis, paraplegia refers to the loss of function in 2 limbs, usually your legs. Quadriplegia and tetrapleglegia refer to functional loss of your arms and legs and usually includes your trunk (main body area).
Treatment for spinal cord injuries has 3 key phases.
1. Minimising further injury to your spinal cord
If you suspect a spinal injury and need to perform first aid, do not move the injured person as permanent complications can result. Call 111 for emergency medical assistance.
Keep the person's head, neck and back aligned and prevent unnecessary movement.
Provide as much first aid as possible without moving the person's head or neck.
If the person is wearing a helmet, don't remove it.
In hospital, further steps will be taken to stabilise the spine. This can include traction or braces.
Sometimes surgery is needed and any other injuries need to be treated.
This involves a combination of physical therapies and occupational therapy tailored to each person's needs.
This phase also usually includes counselling for both the person and their loved ones to help the adjustment and recovery process.
3. Preventing and managing long-term complications
Health issues that may arise for people with spinal cord injuries include:
Talk to your doctor about the best way to prevent and manage these conditions.
If you get a spinal injury, it is likely you and your whānau/family will experience a period of grief. Grief is a healthy and important part of recovery. It can be helpful to talk about your disability and educate yourself about spinal injuries and technologies that can assist you.
Other self-care includes:
learning about how to avoid pressure injuries
learning about how to avoid urinary tract injuries
setting goals for your future.
If I have a spinal injury, how can I prevent pressure injuries?
One of the health risks associated with having a spinal injury is getting pressure injuries or sores. Knowing the signs of a pressure sore or injury and what to do about them are important steps towards preventing them. Here are some tips from a health consumer with a C4–C5 spinal injury.
Have a good self-care routine
Taking good care of yourself, including getting enough sleep and healthy food sets your body up well to fight off any infections.
Know the signs to watch out for
Self-awareness of what is happening in your body that might indicate a pressure injury or infection means you can catch it early. A high temperature, urine smell changes, bowel accidents and increased spasms are all signs to look out for.
Regularly moving position in bed is key to avoiding pressure injuries. Your nurse or health specialist can indicate how often is needed through the night.
Have the right equipment
Because most people with C4–C5 spinal injuries don’t feel them occurring, you need to have up-to-date mattresses and wheelchair cushions as a form of protection against them incurring.
If you get a pressure injury, ask what happened prior to it occurring. For example, was the support worker trained properly? Was adequate care taken, eg, care plans read and adhered to? This can help you to make sure you get the correct treatment in the future.
Spinal injuries can happen to anyone, but you may be at greater risk if you are male, a young adult, drink alcohol, engage in risky behaviour or have an existing condition like osteoporosis. To reduce your risk:
drive safely, and never drink and drive
check water depth before diving
wear the recommended safety gear when playing sports
avoid leading with your head in sports, eg, don't slide head-first in rugby.
A daring university stunt that went horribly wrong left Gareth Lynch with a permanent spinal injury. This video follows the self-confessed adrenalin junkie as he regains independence.
(Attitude Live, NZ)
A broken body isn't a broken person
(TED talks, 2012)
Life Changes After a Spinal Cord Injury
In January 2019, 30-year-old Ashley Treseder dived off a pier at Shoal Bay in NSW, broke his neck, and became a C4 tetraplegic. After six months of rehabilitation, Ash is starting from scratch in his new home with the support of family and friends.
(Attitude NZ, 2019)
A life-changing quad bike accident at 18 left Anita Kendrick paraplegic. But with determination and a few adaptations, she’s managed to get back to her job as a shepherd on a King Country farm.
(Attitude Live, NZ)
Overcoming a Spinal Cord Injury: Claire's Story
A spinal injury at 17 didn't stop Claire Freeman achieving her dreams of completing a design degree, Masters and now PhD in the powerchair. Despite ticking things off her bucket-list, she was severely depressed. In a bizarre twist of fate, it was a mishap in a routine operation, which forced her to pause and address her issues… nearly two-decades after her car accident.
(Attitude NZ, 2017)
Bulletproof: Sophie takes life on
In 2016, a horse riding accident left Sophia Malthus tetraplegic. But determined to turn her situation into a positive, she’s saying ‘yes’ to all opportunities as she figures out what her future holds.