How is a spinal cord injury diagnosed?
If the doctor thinks you have a possible spinal cord injury, you will be kept immobile (unable to move) while tests are done at the hospital. You may have an x-ray, computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). These tests take pictures of the vertebra and can show your doctor if there is any damage. Your doctor will also perform a neurological exam to determine how severe the injury is. During the neurological exam, your doctor will see how much muscle control you have and whether or not you can feel different sensations. All of these tests will help your doctor determine the level and completeness of your injury.
How is a spinal cord injury treated?
While you are in the hospital, a team of doctors will decide the best course of treatment for your spinal cord injury. You will likely be given a medicine called methylprednisolone to reduce swelling and inflammation at the site of the injury. You may need to have surgery to remove bone or tissue that may be pressing on the spinal cord or to stabilize the spine. You may also need to be put in traction, which is used to keep your head or your whole body from moving while your spinal column is being stabilized.
After your spinal column has been stabilized, your doctor will talk to you about the types of long-term treatment that you will need. These types of treatment options can help prevent secondary health problems, such as blood clots, shrinking of the muscles, loss of calcium in the bones and thinning of the skin. Some of these treatment options include:
- Medicine: Your doctor may talk to you about taking medicine to control some of the symptoms of a spinal cord injury. Muscle spasticity, incontinence and sexual dysfunction can all be helped by taking medicine. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of botulinum toxin for certain kinds of arm spasticity. Botulinum toxin is injected into the muscle to help stop muscle spasms. Be sure to talk to your doctor about your symptoms so your doctor can help you find the medicine that will work best for you. Your doctor can also help you control any pain that you may be having.
- Physical therapy: Physical therapy is made up of stretching, strengthening exercises and muscle training. This will help you with flexibility, coordination and strength in your muscles.
- Occupational therapy: Occupational therapy can help you re-learn daily tasks, such as bathing, getting dressed, cooking and writing. Because of a spinal cord injury, your body may have “forgotten” how to do these tasks. An occupational therapist can also teach you more about your injury and how to prevent secondary health problems.
- Experimental treatments: Doctors and researchers are working hard to find a cure for spinal cord injuries. Be sure to talk to your doctor about experimental or new treatments that may be available.
Can I recover from a spinal cord injury?
Your recovery will depend on how severe your injury is. Most recovery will take place within the first 6 months after the injury. However, some people continue to make progress beyond that. Your doctor will help you determine what your recovery will be like and how long it may take.
Remember that people who have spinal cord injuries can live full, happy lives. They have jobs, get married and have children. They participate in sports, go to movies and concerts and drive cars. Continued medical research is constantly providing new treatment options and technologies aimed at finding a cure for spinal cord injuries.
See a list of resources used in the development of this information.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff