Importance of Accurately Diagnosing Spinal Cord Injuries

Doctor's chart with Spinal cord injury written as diagnosisSome spinal cord injuries are very obvious, as there is significant pain or signs of weakness and paralysis; however, other spinal cord injuries aren’t as easy to detect. This is why it is important that immediate medical treatment is sought when people have head injuries, pelvic fractures, penetrating injuries to the spine, spine lumps, decrease in feeling and movement in their extremities, difficulty walking, pressure or pain in the chest, and difficulty breathing.

Because of the seriousness of spinal cord injuries, these traumas require an accurate diagnosis and immediate medical attention. In order to determine if a person has sustained a spinal cord injury, a doctor will usually talk with the patient about the accident, ask questions, and conduct tests for movement and sensory function. Additionally, a doctor will order certain diagnostic tests to get a better view of the spine and vertebrae.

Imaging Tests Involved in Diagnosing Spinal Cord Injuries

For help determining if there is a spinal fracture, nerve damage, injury to the discs, muscle weakness, or other damage to the spine, diagnostic and imaging tests will be performed, which can include: x-rays, computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test, myelography, electromyography, and nerve conduction study—all diagnostic tests we have discussed and defined on our practice area page that we invite you to read.

Although these imaging tests give doctors a good view of injuries a patient may have received, there are other ways medical professionals diagnose spinal cord injuries. A series of tests is typically completed within the first 72 hours following the initial injury to determine the extent of the spinal cord injury as well as a patient’s treatment, rehabilitation, and recovery needs. This type of testing that doctors use is known as the standard American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) Impairment Scale.

Understanding the ASIA Impairment Scale

When using the ASIA Impairment Scale, it involves testing the injured person’s muscle strength, ability to sense light, and capability to feel things—even a pinprick. Doctors conduct this type of thorough neurological examination and use this scale to help them determine the severity of a patient’s spinal cord injury.

According to the ASIA Impairment Scale, a patient will fall into one of five levels, including:

  • Grade A: There is a complete loss of neural function—meaning there is no motor or sensory function left below the level of injury. This is classified as a complete spinal cord injury impairment.
  • Grade B: There is some level of sensory function below the level of injury; however, there isn’t any motor function left. This is considered an incomplete spinal cord injury.
  • Grade C: This type of spinal cord injury is also considered incomplete. Over half of the key muscles below the injury site are not strong enough to move against gravity; however, some muscle movement is preserved below the level of injury.
  • Grade D: Although this type of spinal cord injury is also considered an incomplete impairment, people with this type of injury can use at least half of their muscles because their motor function has been preserved below the level of injury site.
  • Grade E: This type of spinal cord injury is considered normal. This means that all neurologic function has returned and sensory and motor functions are normal.

In addition to these five grade levels, there is a zero through five number ranking system to measure a patient’s muscle strength and movement. Five is the highest score—meaning a person has his or her normal strength—and zero is the lowest score, which means a person has a lack of muscle movement. For example, a person may be classified as a C4. These levels tell a doctor about a patient’s functional impairment, which is very important in providing an accurate diagnosis.

Because spinal cord injuries can be severe and result in partial paralysis, tetraplegia, quadriplegia, or other life-altering injuries, it is critical that anyone who has suffered a spinal cord injury as a result of someone else’s negligence seek immediate legal help in addition to medical care. Please call our law firm at (703) 691-5919 to speak with a personal injury lawyer who understands spinal cord injuries and is experienced in handling these types of lawsuits.