People suffer serious injuries every day. Unfortunately, some injuries are more serious than others. One type of severe injury is a spinal cord injury. The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that extends from the brain down the back. Its main responsibility is to transport messages from the brain to different parts of the body. The messages that are transmitted through the spinal cord allow us to move our arms and legs and know if we feel pain in our limbs. When the spinal cord is damaged, it prevents communication between the brain and the body.
When damage occurs to the spinal cord, it is a very serious type of physical trauma that can suddenly impact someone’s life forever. This is because the vast majority of people who suffer spinal cord injuries will sustain a loss of mobility and some may even be paralyzed from the neck down. These profound changes not only impact victims but their families as well.
Because spinal cord injuries are significant injuries that can overwhelm patients and their families, it is important to have the right information to help empower you. Such information is found on this page.
Types of Spinal Cord Injuries
There are two main types of spinal cord injury:
- Incomplete spinal cord injuries. When there is an incomplete spinal cord injury, a person may still be able to move and feel movement below the point of injury, have feeling but little or no movement, or have movement but little feeling. Some different types of incomplete spinal cord injuries include anterior cord syndrome, central cord syndrome, posterior cord syndrome, Brown-Séquard syndrome, or cauda equine syndrome.
- Complete spinal cord injuries. When a complete spinal cord injury occurs, a person will lose all function below the point of injury. If the injury is below the first thoracic spinal nerve, paraplegia will result. This means that a person will lose feeling and movement from the mid-chest down through the legs; however, the person will still be able to use his or her arms and hands. When injuries occur to the cervical neck, it may cause tetraplegia. This means that a person will likely lose all feeling and movement below the neck, which can include all limbs as well as the ability to breathe unassisted.
Causes of Spinal Cord Injuries
Spinal cord injuries are often caused by trauma, such as in the case of motor vehicle accidents. Common causes of spinal cord injuries include:
- Car accidents. Because car crashes are traumatic, it is common for people including drivers, passengers, and pedestrians to suffer blows to their spinal cords. In fact, auto accidents are the leading cause of new spinal cord injuries every year.
- Truck accidents. When trauma to the face, neck, back, or chest occurs in a violent trucking accident, a victim can suffer a spinal cord injury that is likely to be considered a complete spinal cord injury.
- Motorcycle accidents. One of the other common causes of spinal cord injuries occurs in motorcycle accidents when motorcyclists’ spinal cords are forcefully flexed, bruised, or impacted by an external force, such as a vehicle or the hard ground.
- Medical malpractice. When a medical error made by a doctor during surgery causes damage to the spine, a patient may sustain an incomplete or complete spinal cord injury. This medical error may occur during a spinal fusion surgery or during of back surgery that requires the placement of rods, plates and screws.
Diagnosing Spinal Cord Injuries
In order to confirm that the injury you suffered is, in fact, a spinal cord injury, a doctor will likely perform the following diagnostic tests:
- X-rays. A doctor will likely take an x-ray of the neck and back, as x-rays are a common radiographic tool used to assess injuries. If an x-ray identifies a spinal fracture, it may be a clue that a spinal cord injury did occur.
- CT scan. The next step a doctor may take is ordering a computed tomography (CT) scan. This test gives a doctor a better view of the vertebrae over an x-ray because it can pick up additional injuries not seen on x-rays.
- MRI. One of the best diagnostic tools in identifying a spinal cord injury is a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test. This is because soft tissues such as nerves, discs, ligaments, and the spinal cord itself can be evaluated with this test.
- Myelography. This type of test is often done on someone who cannot undergo an MRI test. A radiologist will inject a contrast dye into the spinal column and use X-rays and CT scans to see the spinal cord more clearly than with standard X-rays.
- Electromyography (EMG). This type of test is used to analyze whether muscle weakness has occurred and if there is a problem with the nerve supply to the muscle. It is performed by a neurologist who places small needles in the muscle to determine the electrical activity of the muscle when it is contracted and when it is at rest.
- Nerve conduction study (NCS). This type of test is also performed by neurologists and is usually done in combination with an EMG test. The NCS test measures how the nerves transmit electrical signals to the muscles. During the test, the nerves are stimulated with an electrode patch to measure nerve function in order to see if there is a blockage of the nerve pathway.
Treating Spinal Cord Injuries
All spinal cord injuries are different due to the severity and location of an injury; however, damage done to the spinal cord cannot be reversed. This is why treatment of spinal cord injuries focuses on preventing any further injury to the spinal cord. If a spinal cord injury is thought to have occurred in a motor vehicle accident, the person’s spine is immobilized by emergency personnel and that person is taken to the hospital for further medical care.
Early treatment is key in reducing inflammation and preventing any further damage to the spinal cord. Treatments can include:
- Medication. Drugs can be used immediately following a spinal cord injury. One such medication that should be administered within the first eight hours is methylprednisolone, a type of steroid. This drug may be continued for the next 24 to 48 hours to help control the inflammation near the injury site and also help reduce damage to the nerve cells. Other drugs such as narcotics, muscle relaxants, antibiotics, and even anti-depressants may be used to help treat other conditions that develop after a spinal cord injury.
- Surgery. When spinal cord injuries occur, surgery is often needed to help with spinal stabilization in order to prevent further deformity and future pain. Also, surgery is common when herniated discs, fractured vertebrae, or other objects are compressing the spine in order to release the pressure on the injured area. Although surgery cannot take away the damage done to the spinal cord, it can help prevent weakness, bladder problems, and further pain.
- Rehabilitation. Following surgery, aggressive rehabilitation should begin. This gives patients the best chance at making the best recovery. Rehabilitation will include occupational therapy, physical therapy, counseling, and learning to use assistive devices.
Long-Term Effects of Spinal Cord Injuries
Spinal cord injuries can suddenly produce some of the following secondary problems:
- Paralysis. When spinal cord injuries end in paralysis, paraplegia, quadriplegia and tetraplegia could be the outcome. Any one of these types of paralysis is considered a disability that can affect a person’s job, relationships, and daily living.
- Circulatory problems. When spinal cord injuries cause paralysis in the legs or when people can’t move their legs like they used to, blood clots are likely to form. Also, circulatory control problems can lead to a rise in blood pressure, which can be life-threatening.
- Respiratory system difficulties. When people suffer spinal cord injuries, they may also be at an increased risk for developing pneumonia and other lung problems. Unfortunately, people with spinal cord injuries often suffer from breathing problems.
- Continence issues. Spinal cord injuries are known to affect bladder and bowel control. This is because the brain isn’t able to communicate properly because the spinal cord has been injured.
- Mental health problems. Because spinal cord injuries often cause paralysis, the changes cause many people to suffer from depression. Unfortunately, depression can negatively affect feelings, behaviors, thoughts, sleep, mental health, and overall physical health.
- Wrongful death. The worst outcome of a spinal cord injury is death. If your loved one has died due to someone’s negligence, you have the right to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit.
What to Expect After a Spinal Cord Injury
Victims of spinal cord injury will need both physical and financial assistance to move forward with a productive life. Among those vital services are the following:
- Ongoing medical care and in-home care. When spinal cord injuries cause loss of movement and sensation—leaving people paralyzed—victims will need to follow up with their doctors, continue physical and occupational therapy, and work with home care therapist to make sure they are getting the treatment they need. Also, those living with spinal cord injuries will likely need in-home care to help them cook, clean, groom, and take care of themselves. All of these things are expensive and the costs can quickly add up, which is why victims of need to be reimbursed for such costs.
- An experienced spinal cord injury attorney. Attorneys are important in making sure a victim’s voice is heard and a victim gets the compensation he or she is due. Not all attorneys are equipped to handle spinal cord injury cases. This is why it is important to look for a lawyer who has experience in representing spinal cord injury victims and who will take your case on a contingency basis so that you don’t have to pay any money up front.
- Damages from those responsible for the injury. When innocent people are injured or paralyzed in an accident that wasn’t their fault, they have the right to pursue financial compensation from the wrongdoer. Types of damages available in personal injury claims involving spinal cord injuries include medical expenses, future medical care, life care costs, lost income, future loss of earnings and benefits, pain and suffering, and the loss of enjoyment of life.
It is important that people living with spinal cord injuries grieve their new disabilities but then start taking control of their lives again. They can do this by educating themselves about spinal cord injuries and their legal options. Hopefully, the information on this page has empowered you and provided you with useful information so that you can pursue your legal rights and look ahead.
If you believe someone else’s negligence was the cause of your spinal cord injury or your loved one’s death, you need to speak with a lawyer who has experience handling spinal cord injury cases. You can find an experienced injury lawyer at our Fairfax law firm. We invite you to contact us today at (703) 591-0067 to learn about your rights in a free consultation.