Dr. Brian Higdon near his laptop during a patient consultation

Acute vs. Chronic Spinal Cord Injuries

Whether it’s the result of a car accident, a sudden fall, an infection, or a tumor, a spinal cord injury (SCI) can change your life entirely. It can cause a severe loss of motor function due to a lack of blood flow in the affected area, and damage to the spinal cord can be permanent.

Some spinal cord injuries only have temporary symptoms that may diminish through comprehensive treatment. Others may completely damage the spinal cord for a lifetime.

What is an acute spinal cord injury?

Acute spinal cord injury is caused by a traumatic injury that partially tears, bruises, or completely tears the spinal cord. It is one of the leading causes of death and permanent disability in adults and children.

SCI can lead to a decrease or loss of sensation, movement, and organ function below the area of the injury. The most common areas that suffer SCI are the cervical and thoracic areas.

What causes an acute SCI?

Acute SCI commonly occurs when the neck area or spine is compressed or bent. Common accidents that cause SCI include:

  • Diving accidents
  • Falls
  • Birth injuries, which usually affect your spinal cord in the neck area
  • Sports injuries
  • Trampoline accidents
  • Car accidents (motorcycles, automobiles, and being hit as a pedestrian)
  • Violence, including injuries that stab the spinal cord, like stab wounds and gunshots

Risk factors of an acute spinal cord injury

According to the WHO, older adults and young adult males are at a higher risk of getting acute SCIs. Young males are at a higher risk of car accidents, violence, and sports injuries, while falls are the leading cause of SCIs in older adults.

Symptoms of an acute SCI

Symptoms of an acute SCI vary depending on the location and severity of the injury. After a spinal cord injury, you may get a spinal shock, which causes a decrease or loss of sensation, reflexes, and muscle movement. When the spinal cord swelling that appears after injury reduces, other symptoms may emerge.

Intense injuries to the spinal cord will lead to severe symptoms. For instance, an injury in the lumbar vertebrae can affect your control of the bowel, bladder, and leg muscles and nerves.

Here are some common symptoms of an acute SCI:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of feeling in the arms, trunk, or legs
  • Breathing problems
  • Loss of bowel and bladder function
  • Digestive problems
  • Sexual problems
  • Blood pressure and heart rate problems

However, some of these symptoms can be caused by other medical conditions, so consult your medical professional for a diagnosis.

How are acute spinal cord injuries diagnosed?

Your doctors should conduct an emergency evaluation anytime there is a possible spinal cord injury. The diagnosis of SCI begins with diagnostic tests and a physical exam. During the exam, a healthcare provider will ask how the injury occurred and your medical history.

Diagnostic tests may include X-rays, blood tests, CT scans, and MRIs. These tests show the severity and location of the injury.

Treatment for acute spinal cord injuries

The initial treatment of SCIs depends on the severity and location of the injury. A healthcare professional may prescribe steroids to help reduce the swelling in the spinal column. If the vertebrae are dislocated, doctors can perform surgery to align them.

Rehabilitation should start early. As the condition improves, a detailed rehabilitation program starts. The success of the rehabilitation depends on the following:

  • Family support
  • Severity and level of the SCI
  • Degree and type of resulting disabilities and impairments
  • Your overall health

Your SCI treatment specialist will develop a comprehensive rehabilitation plan that maximizes your capabilities in the community and at home.

Prevention for acute SCIs

It’s hard to prevent SCI, but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk. These include:

  • Wearing a seat belt when driving
  • Do not drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Keep firearms locked away and unloaded

What is a chronic spinal cord injury?

Chronic SCI is a progressive or permanent interruption in the conduction of impulses on the tracts and neurons of the spinal cord. The term is mostly used when acute SCI lasts at least one year.

What causes chronic SCI?

Chronic SCI is caused by a vascular or mechanical distortion of the spinal cord arising from a tumor, trauma, infection, or other space-occupying lesions.

Risk factors of a chronic spinal cord injury

Chronic SCI can happen to people of all ages. However, some factors have higher chances of sustaining this type of injury. It can be caused by arthritis, certain types of cancer, and some health conditions, like polio and spina bifida.

Symptoms of a chronic SCI

Common symptoms associated with chronic SCI include:

  • Pain (musculoskeletal and neurogenic)
  • Bowel and/or bladder dysfunction
  • Soft tissue contractures
  • Gait disturbances
  • Cardiovascular dysautonomia
  • Progression and development of long-term neurologic complications like syringomyelia.

How are chronic spinal cord injuries diagnosed?

Chronic SCI diagnosis aims to identify if a patient has progressive pathology and to thoroughly check the disability caused by the condition. Some imaging tests can help diagnose a chronic SCI, including MRI, CT scan, and X-ray.

Treatment for chronic spinal cord injuries

Full recovery from chronic SCI is hard, and the outcome depends on the success of the rehabilitation and residual function. Psychotherapy and counseling can help with emotional trauma after sustaining a chronic spinal cord injury.

People with an SCI should visit their healthcare providers regularly. Doctors can recommend adaptive equipment, help manage complications, and improve one’s quality of life.

Prevention for chronic SCIs

There is no proven way to prevent chronic SCI. Follow general safety practices such as driving safely, avoiding falls, and checking water depth before diving.

Rehabilitation for acute and chronic spinal cord injuries

If you’ve suffered a severe spinal cord injury, time is of the essence. At Brooks Rehabilitation, our dedicated team of experts works together to create a personalized spinal cord injury treatment plan.

We have decades of medical expertise and use the latest technology to perform a comprehensive assessment, determine what you need, and start a tailored treatment immediately.

Contact us for more information or schedule a consultation today.

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