Spinal Cord Injuries Leading to Temporary or Permanent Paralysis

In a previous article, we looked at different types of back injuries due to trauma. Spinal cord injuries can occur at any level of the back or neck, and may be due to flexion, rotation, extension, compression, or cauda equina problems. And the result can be damage to the tissues including ligament strain, subluxation (misalignment of the vertebrae), nerve damage, and fracture or dislocation of the bones of the spine. This article will discuss the results of such trauma in terms of changes to the proper functioning of the spinal column and potential paralysis below the site of injury.

No one wants to think about being paralyzed from the neck down or the from the waist down as a result of a fall or motor vehicle accident. But people can be very seriously injured and lose the functioning of their bodies as a result of spinal cord trauma. In a fall or violent encounter affecting the back, though, one of the first signs of a cord injury is a loss of nerve function below where the injury occurs. It may be a total loss of sensation and control, or just a partial impairment with some loss of feeling. But if it is clear that some feeling has been lost, then spinal cord injury may be the problem.

A complete cutting of the nerve can result in immediate, total loss of functioning below the transection level. All sensation and reflex activity is paralyzed, the person loses control of the limbs, and the automatic processes of the body below that level are completely shut off. If the cord is cut high in the neck region, functions such as breathing may be impaired as the muscles that control the respiratory response are no longer able to function. In fact, pneumonia is a common cause of death in such patients who need help in breathing after complete paralysis.

While the prospect of recovering from the spinal cord being cut is very low, complete paralysis below the site of injury may not be permanent in all cases. Sometimes, trauma causes a concussion or contusion leads to a temporary paralysis due to the swelling at that part of the spine. In time, as the inflammation is reduced, proper nerve functioning is restored. This phenomenon is referred to as spinal shock, and the related swelling usually diminishes over a few days after a rapid buildup right after the injury occurs. The good news is that the paralysis is only temporary.

Nerves that have been completely cut or degenerated, though, do not recover in time or with treatment. The damage to the nervous system functioning is most often permanent and irreversible. If there is a return of feeling and muscle control within the first week of an injury, there is a much better chance of recovery. Compression injuries that compress the nerves in the spine can also recover with time. Injuries that cause a lack of sensation and movement for months, however, often lead to a permanent loss of functioning.