What is a Spinal Injury?
A spinal injury refers to any type of injury that affects the spinal column, which is composed of bones (vertebrae), discs, and ligaments. This can include injuries to the bones, ligaments, and discs of the spine, which may or may not involve damage to the spinal cord.
The Spinal Column (Backbone)
The spinal column, commonly known as the backbone, is a protective layer of bone that covers the spinal cord. It is composed of 33 individual bones (vertebrae) stacked on top of each other, extending from the skull to the pelvis. Aside from protecting the spinal cord and nerve roots, the vertebral column serves other functions, such as:
- Providing structural support for the head, shoulders, and chest
- Connecting the upper and lower body for balance and weight distribution
- Allowing for flexibility and mobility in one’s back
- Producing red blood cells (in the bone marrow)
What are the Symptoms of Spinal Injury?
The symptoms of a spinal injury vary depending on the type, severity and location of the injury; as well as the degree of sensation lost. The symptoms may manifest immediately or gradually. Common symptoms include:
- Loss of mobility or motor function
- Severe pain in the neck or back
- Difficulty breathing
- Reduced or loss of sensation in the limbs
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Weakness, incoordination, or paralysis in any part of the body
- Deformity along the spine
- Difficulty with balance and coordination
How Are Spinal Injuries Diagnosed?
As spine injuries are emergencies, the medical team will first ensure that the injury does not affect the patient’s breathing or heart rate. If the patient is still awake and breathing, the medical team may then assess the state of their nerves by checking their sensory function (sense of touch) and movement (motor function).
In cases where the patient has lost consciousness or has obvious neurological injuries, diagnostic tests will be performed to identify the type of spinal injury incurred. These tests include imaging tests to evaluate the condition of the spinal column, spinal cord, and brain.
- X-rays – This is used to assess if there are any damages to the vertebrae, fractures, dislocations, or changes in the spine.
- MRI – This provides a detailed image of the spinal cord or soft tissues to check for herniated discs or blood clots.
- CT scan – This offers a clearer view of the bones to assess the presence of broken bones or discs, blood clots, or blood vessel damage.
What are the Treatment Options for Spinal Injuries?
Spinal injuries are treated through a combination of medical, surgical, and rehabilitative approaches. In mild cases of injuries, non-surgical methods may be used at first, including pain management, physiotherapy, and immobilization with braces. These techniques aim to reduce pain and inflammation, strengthen one’s muscles, and promote the body's natural healing processes.
In more severe cases, however, surgery may be necessary. Procedures like laminectomy, discectomy, and spinal fusion are performed to alleviate pressure on the spinal cord, stabilize the spine, or repair damaged discs. Spine surgeons utilize advanced techniques, including minimally invasive procedures, to minimise tissue disruption and facilitate quicker recovery.
Following surgery, rehabilitation plays a crucial role in recovery. Physiotherapy and lifestyle modifications are key to improving strength, flexibility, and overall function of the spine and spinal cord.