A Closer Look at Your Spinal Cord
The spinal cord is a column of nerves protected by 31 vertebrae, which runs from your tailbone up to your brain. You can divide your spinal cord into four distinct regions:
- Cervical spinal cord. This is the top portion of your spine, where your cord connects to the brain and neck connects to your backs. There are eight vertebrae in this region. This part of the spinal cord controls movement in your upper limbs.
- Thoracic spinal cord. This is the middle section of your spinal cord and contains 12 vertebrae.
- Lumbar spinal cord. This lower section contains five vertebrae and is the portion of your spinal cord that begins to bend inward.
- Sacral spine. This section has 5 vertebrae and is shaped like a triangle. This section contains your nerve roots, which exit the spine at different vertebral levels. At the base of the spine is your tailbone, which contains the final vertebrae.
Types of Spinal InjuriesImagine that you’re sideswiped as you pull out of the Houston Public Library parking lot. Depending on the severity of the hit, your vertebrae can crack or shatter, injuring the column of nerves. Two types of spinal cord injuries exist: complete and incomplete. A complete spinal cord injury completely severs your spinal cord. Generally, you’ll lose all bodily function below the point of the injury, but some patients regain some functions with physical therapy and other treatments. Incomplete spinal cord injuries involve only a partial severing of the spinal cord, so the patient retains some function. Incomplete injuries make up about six in 10 spinal cord injuries. Common incomplete injuries include:
- Central cord syndrome. You suffer an injury at the center of your cord, which results in damage to the nerves that carry signals from your brain to the spinal cord. This can paralyze your arms or cause the loss of fine motor skills, and you might also lose the ability to control your bowels.
- Anterior cord syndrome. You suffer an injury to the center of the spinal cord, which damages the motor and sensory pathways, resulting in struggles with movement.
- Brown-Sequard syndrome. You suffer an injury to one side of the spinal cord, which results in pronounced problems on one side of your body. The injury, for example, might paralyze your left side but still leave you able to move your right.
Treating a Spinal InjuryTreatment begins immediately, by stabilizing patients at the scene of the car accident so that they don’t move around and aggravate any incomplete injuries. At the hospital, patients often undergo surgery to remove bone fragments from shattered vertebrae. Surgery also helps support the spine and prevent deformity. Unfortunately, doctors cannot reverse damage to your spinal cord, so they will focus instead on preventing secondary problems such as infections, blood clots, ulcers, and bowel or bladder issues. Once stabilized, patients will undergo evaluation by a rehabilitation team, with the goal of maintaining what function you still have and redeveloping lost fine motor skills. You may need to learn new ways to complete everyday household tasks such as dressing yourself, cooking, or typing on a computer.
Making Adjustments to Your LifeHospital stays and rehabilitation are only some of the expenses you can incur with a spinal cord injury. Patients often need life-long care to take care of themselves, such as:
- A ventilator to help you breathe
- Tubes to feed you
- Attendants to look after you
- Pain medication or sleeping pills to manage a disrupted sleep schedule
- Continuing physical therapy
- Counseling to help you and family members cope with changes to your lifestyle
- Future surgeries to help you deal with complications