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How a Spinal Cord Injury Impacts the Body and Ways to Treat It

A spinal cord injury cannot be cured, but treatment can help prevent additional injuries and irreversible damage.

A spinal cord injury (SCI) is damage to any part of the spinal cord – the bundle of nerves that carries signals from the brain to the rest of the body. Because the spinal cord is the root of your body’s sensation and functioning, damage to it can result in permanent loss of feeling or ability to function.

The severity and symptoms of an SCI depend on the cause and location of the injury. While an SCI cannot be cured, treatment can help alleviate its effects on the body.

[Editor’s Note: Read more about what causes an SCI and how to recognize the signs and symptoms here.]

Preventing Secondary Injury

“An SCI is composed of both primary and secondary injuries,” says neurosurgeon Christian Hoelscher, MD. “The actual injury that occurred to damage your spinal cord is the primary injury. For instance, a fracture in your spine can create compression to damage your spinal cord. No surgery or treatment will reverse this primary injury.”

“The body’s response to the primary injury is what can cause secondary injuries—which is what we’re trying to limit when treating patients with SCIs.”

Once an injury happens, the area may become swollen, as part of the body’s inflammatory response. Post-injury swelling of the spinal cord causes compression, which can limit blood flow to the nerves. And while a healthy spinal cord can self-regulate blood flow in times of need—even at the expense of other body parts—a damaged spinal cord cannot.

Treatments & Why You Shouldn’t Delay Help

“If we do not treat an SCI by stabilizing the spinal column and decompressing the spinal cord, it can exacerbate the injury and progress to full paralysis,” says neurosurgeon Hekmat Zarzour, MD. Those who have experienced an acute injury, like a fall or a car accident, must undergo surgery within 24 hours of the accident.

As Dr. Zarzour mentioned, the two main types of treatment for SCIs are stabilizing the spinal column and decompressing the spinal cord. “Stabilizing the spinal column ensures that the patient is not at risk for further spinal injury,” says Dr. Hoelscher. Decompressing the spinal cord allows blood flow and oxygen to return to the bundle of nerves. While these treatment methods don’t heal the initial injury, they are essential to ensuring the patient doesn’t experience further injury.

If You Witness an Injury

If you witness a fall or other potential spinal injury, do not move the person and call 9-1-1 right away. “Any movement could potentially worsen the effects of the injury, so it’s important to keep the injured person where they are and wait for an emergency response team to help,” says Dr. Zarzour.

[Main photo credit: Veres]

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