motorcycle accidents are currently the leading cause of spinal cord injuries throughout the
United States. According to the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education
and Research, vehicle related accidents account for 40 percent of all
spinal related injuries.
Such injuries result from damage to the vertebrae, ligaments or disks of
the spinal column or to the spinal cord itself. Depending on the extent
of the injury, damage may include bleeding, swelling, inflammation and
fluid accumulation in and around the spinal cord days or even weeks after
Additionally, the damage may affect the corresponding muscles and nerves
depending on where the injury site is located on the body. For example,
spinal cord damage stemming from a neck injury may affect arm movement
and ability to breath, where a lower back injury is more likely to affect
the torso, legs and lower body movements.
Spinal cord injuries may be categorized as “complete” or “incomplete”.
A complete spinal cord injury reflects a person’s inability to function
the part of the body associated with the injury site. As such, complete
spinal cord injuries typically involve paralysis or lifelong impairment
of certain functions of the central nervous system. On the contrary, victim’s
who suffer “incomplete” spinal cord injuries have a higher
degree of functionality and are typically capable of making full recoveries.
Since these injuries are less severe than the “complete” spinal
cord injuries, the symptoms of “incomplete” spinal cord injuries
are frequently overlooked.
Typically a “complete” spinal cord injury, which results in
some form of paralysis, depends on two factors: the location of injury
along the spine and the severity of injury to the spinal cord. Depending
upon these two factors, quadriplegia (loss of movement in all four limbs)
or paraplegia (loss of movement in the legs) may result from a traumatic
injury to the spinal cord. Emergency signs and symptoms of spinal cord
injury after an accident may include any of the following: 1) Extreme
pain or pressure in the lower back, head or neck, 2) weakness, incoordination
or paralysis in any part of the body, 3) Numbness, tingling or loss of
sensation in the hands, fingers, feet or toes, 4) loss of bladder or bowel
control, 5) Difficulty with balance and walking, 6) Impaired breathing
after the injury, and 6) an oddly positioned or twisted neck or back.
It is of extreme importance to note that anyone who experiences significant
trauma to their head or neck should seek immediate medical attention for
the possibility of a spinal injury. It is safest to assume that a trauma
victim has suffered such an injury until proven otherwise because a serious
spinal injury isn’t always immediately obvious to the victim. Numbness
and paralysis sometimes results immediately, but may also come on gradually
as swelling or bleeding occurs in or around the spinal cord. Therefore,
the time between the injury and treatment becomes critical in determining
the extent of the complications as well as the necessary amount of recovery.
Herniated disks are a typical type of “incomplete” spinal cord
injuries. A disk herniation occurs when injury to the spine causes tears
in the hard outer layer of the spongy disc in the spine. Typically, when
these discs are healthy, they act as shock absorbers to keep the spine
flexible. However, if one of these discs becomes injured it may cause
the disc to bulge, break open or tear, causing severe pain and various
other medical ailments. Typically herniated disks are diagnosed through
an MRI or CT scan, however, a doctor may be able to make the diagnosis
based on a series of questions and observations of the type of symptoms
that the patient is experiencing.
One of the most common side effects associated with herniated discs in
the lower back is known as Sciatica. The symptoms of this diagnosis include
shooting pain in the legs when sitting and a burning or tingling feeling
down one or both legs.
A second common side effect associated with herniated discs is known as
Spinal Stenosis. This medical term refers to the narrowing of the spinal
canal. This narrowing process squeezes and irritates the spinal cord itself
or the spinal nerve root, causing extreme pain especially when one’s
back is stretched or extended (for example, when standing straight, leaning
backwards or walking downhill). Stenosis may vary depending on the area
of the injury site, for example an injury to the neck may result in cervical
stenosis, where an injury to the lower back will result in lumbar stenosis.
Unfortunately, if any Spinal Stenosis goes untreated, the symptoms may
worsen, causing severe nerve damage and in some cases even paralysis.
There are a number of nonsurgical treatments for Spinal Stenosis, including
various physical therapy techniques. However, if the symptoms have not
improved from these treatments, an Epidural Steroid Injection (“ESI”)
may be used to treat the pain and inflammation from the pressure on the
spinal cord. The ESI is a combination of a strong anti-inflammatory medication
(known as a corticosteroid) and a local anesthetic pain relief medication.
The injection is made within the spinal canal, into the space around the
spinal cord and nerve roots to relieve the severe pain associated with
Lumbar Spinal Stenosis.
Unfortunately, ESI treatments only relieve the pain for a short period
of time and doctors are recommended to wait two months in between each
injection, and to give no more than three injections within a twelve-month period.
Spinal fusions are another surgical form of treatment used to stabilize
the spine following the removal of a herniated disk. This procedure permanently
connects two or more spinal vertebrae, which may be necessary to improve
stability and reduce pain associated with the disk injury. The surgery
changes how the spine works by shifting stress from fused vertebrae to
adjacent areas of the spine. This may accelerate the wear and tear in
the joints on either side of the fusion, which may cause further damage
and possibly lead to other chronic pain.
This brief overview of the complications associated with spinal cord injuries
should serve as a reminder to be mindful of others on the road and elsewhere.
If you or someone you know has been involved in an accident of any kind,
the possibility of a spinal injury could be great. As a result, it is
necessary to seek immediate medical attention to prevent the worsening
of symptoms associated with such a painful injury.