Symptoms of Spinal Cord Injury

The spine is comprised of vertebrae that fall into three categories. The cervical vertebrae are located in the neck, the thoracic vertebrae are connected to the ribs, and the lumbar vertebrae are located in the lower back. The sacrum—composed of five fused vertebrae—is located below the lumbar vertebrae and is also part of the spine.

The spinal cord is a long, thin bundle of nerve tissue and support cells that extends from the brain to the tail bone. The brain and spinal cord together make up the central nervous system. The spinal cord is the passageway through which sensory and motor information flows; it also coordinates certain reflexes.

According to the Mayo Clinic, spinal cord injuries may result in the following symptoms:

  • Loss of movement
  • Loss of sensation, including the ability to feel heat, cold and touch
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Exaggerated reflex activities or spasms
  • Changes in sexual function, sexual sensitivity and fertility
  • Pain or an intense stinging sensation
  • Difficulty breathing, coughing or clearing secretions from your lungs

Emergency symptoms following an accident may include

  • Extreme back pain or pressure in your neck, head or back
  • Weakness, incoordination or paralysis in any part of your body
  • Numbness, tingling or loss of sensation in your hands, fingers, feet or toes
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Difficulty with balance and walking
  • Impaired breathing
  • An oddly positioned or twisted back or neck

Symptoms are not always obvious, however. For instance, numbness or paralysis may occur immediately after an injury or gradually as bleeding or swelling develops in or around the spinal cord. Keep in mind that it is vital to seek treatment immediately after an injury as it may affect recovery.

Although anyone who has experienced severe trauma to the neck or head should be evaluated by a physician immediately for any evidence of a spinal cord injury, the Mayo Clinic recommends not moving the person. Instead:

  • Call 911.
  • Keep the person still.
  • Place heavy towels on both sides of the neck or hold the head and neck to prevent the person from moving until emergency care arrives.
  • Provide basic first aid, such as stopping any bleeding and making the person comfortable, without moving the head or neck.

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