Serious Injury

Recognising Spinal Injury Symptoms

May 14, 2024
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While some spinal injuries only cause temporary pain and discomfort, others can be life-changing and require long-term rehabilitation and care. If you’re involved in an accident and experience a spinal injury, you should see a medical specialist straight away.

In this article, we cover:

  • Why your spine is so important
  • The differences between complete and incomplete spinal injuries
  • The symptoms of tetraplegia and paraplegia
  • Other spinal injuries to be aware of
  • Emergency spinal injury symptoms
  • Claiming compensation for your spinal injury

Why your spine is so important 

​​Your spine has two parts – the vertebral column and the spinal cord.

The ​vertebral column comprises 33 bones (vertebrae) with two critical roles.

​​​First, it provides your body with stability, support, and flexibility. Second, it safeguards your spinal cord from physical shock. Your spinal cord runs through a canal of “foramen” which are centrally placed gaps in your vertebrae. So, if you fall over and bang your back, the vertebrae protect your spinal cord from the impact.

​​​Your spinal cord is vital as it’s the wiring that connects your brain to the rest of your body.

If you want to go for a run, it’s your spinal cord that tells your legs to run. If you put your hand on a hot stove, your nerve endings send signals to your brain warning of danger. Your spinal cord is responsible for the reflex movement of your hand away from the hot stove.

Despite its importance, it’s just a​ long, thin and delicate bundle of nervous tissues and support cells that can be easily damaged. That’s why the vertebral column is there to protect it.

There are ​three types of spine injury – vertebral, complete and incomplete. Vertebral injuries affect the bones and tissues of the vertebrae but not the spinal cord.

Complete and incomplete injuries affect the spinal cord and are much more severe than vertebral injuries.

Complete spinal injury  

A complete spinal injury is the most severe type of spinal injury.

When someone experiences a complete spinal injury (sometimes called an acute spinal injury), they experience traumatic damage to their spinal cord.

Bruising or cuts and tears in the cord completely stop your brain from communicating with other body parts. You no longer have any muscle control or feeling below the site of your injury. Cuts and tears to the spinal cord are sometimes called “lacerations”.

In the worst cases, a complete spinal injury may result in death, especially if damage is sustained to vertebrae C1 and C2.

​​​Generally, the effects of a complete spinal injury are worse the higher up the spine you sustain the damage.

Incomplete spinal injury  

​​With incomplete spinal injuries, the brain can still communicate with different parts of the body, but not as well as before the accident.

Medical professionals group incomplete spinal cord injuries into the following four categories:

  • Type B: There is still sensation below the area of the injury, but motor function is impaired.
  • Type C: You still have some muscle control and sensations, but some muscles may be weaker or non-functional.
  • Type D: This classification is used when your muscles are 75% functional or higher.
  • Type E: This involves minor and temporary damage to the spinal cord where strength, feeling and control are not significantly affected.

Symptoms that suggest a spine injury is incomplete other than a lack of paralysis include:

  • Numbness: A general loss of sensation below the level of the injury.
  • Pain: This occurs mainly in the legs, arms and back areas.
  • Breathing: Some individuals may face respiratory difficulties.
  • Impaired control: This may affect one side of the body or specific limbs.
  • Weakness: You may not have the same muscle strength below the injury site, affecting your mobility.

Tetraplegia symptoms 

Tetraplegia, also known as quadriplegia, is paralysis in all four of your limbs. When someone is tetraplegic, they have experienced significant and irreversible damage to their spinal cord. The damage occurs typically in the cervical part of the spine between vertebrae C1 and C7.

Other​ spinal cord injury symptoms associated with tetraplegia include:

  • Coughing
  • Digestion difficulties
  • Incontinence
  • Lack of sensation (for example, the ability to determine whether it’s hot or cold)
  • Limb deterioration
  • Muscle spasms
  • Nerve pain
  • Retention (the ability to pass urine or faeces)
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Shortness of breath

Worldwide, the most common causes of spinal cord injury, some of which may result in tetraplegia, are falls, road traffic incidents and violence. Tetraplegia can also occur in babies during childbirth if there is a poor oxygen supply.

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Paraplegia symptoms 

Paraplegia is paralysis that affects the lower half of your body. It may also affect other areas of your lower body and your arms.

It can be caused by the same type of trauma that leads to tetraplegia, but its effects are less severe because the impact to your spine happens lower down in either the thoracic, lumbar or sacral regions.

If you were injured in the thoracic area of your spine, you’ll experience paralysis in your hips, legs, chest, and abdominal muscles. You may also have trouble coughing, breathing deeply, and maintaining control of your bladder and bowels. Any complete injury to the thoracic area means that you will need to use a wheelchair.

If the impact is in the higher part of the lumbar section, the effects are similar to an injury to the lower thoracic. Still, you are less likely to experience bladder and bowel control issues.

In the lower part of the lumbar area and the sacral region, this is called “incomplete paraplegia”. You should be able to walk with a walker or braces.

General ​​symptoms of spinal cord injuries associated with paraplegia include:

  • Autonomic dysreflexia (increase in blood pressure below the area of the injury as a reflex response)
  • Chronic pain (including phantom pain in the lower body)
  • Lack or loss of sensation in the lower parts of your body (and phantom sensations in the lower body)
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Weight gain

​​Although the most common cause of paraplegia is accidents, it may also be brought on by spine or brain tumours or lesions, multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune conditions, and neurological events like cerebral palsy and strokes.

Other spinal injuries to be aware of 

Spinal injuries are common, and, as we’ve seen, they vary in severity. Other common spinal injuries include:

  • Whiplash: Although whiplash is more associated with injury to neck muscles, it can sometimes affect the spinal cord. Look out for pain and stiffness in the neck, arm and shoulder spasms, and difficulty moving your head.
  • Herniated discs: Herniated discs occur when the discs separating the vertebrae push out the exterior casing that holds them in. Signs to watch out for include numbness, tingling, general weakness, and pain in the legs and arms.
  • Compression fractures: This is when one or more of your vertebrae suffer a fracture, just like a broken bone. Back pain and hunched postures are the most visible symptoms although you may experience numbness and difficulty in walking.
  • Spinal stenosis: This is when the foramen protecting your spinal cord become narrower, compressing the cord. Stenosis symptoms include sciatica-like burning pains, weakness in one foot, back pain, and weakness in the legs.
  • Spinal contusions: Common among sportspeople, these are injuries to the top part of your spine that result in weakness in your legs, arms and other extremities. Other symptoms include numbness and tingling. If you are experiencing any of these, you should report to A&E immediately.
  • Cauda equina syndrome: Cauda equina syndrome describes either an injury to or a herniated disc in the middle area of your spine, which results in compression of the nerves in the spinal cord. It’s not life-threatening, but it will almost certainly require surgery. You may experience weakness or paralysis in the lower parts of your body as well as loss of sexual, bladder and bowel control.

What are the emergency symptoms of spinal injury?  

If you’ve had a serious accident and you experience any of the following symptoms, you should call 999 and get to A&E as quickly as you can:

  • Twisted neck or back: Look for unnatural head or spine positions, including a misalignment in the spine’s shape.
  • Extreme head, neck, or back pain or pressure: This type of pain may worsen when you move or if pressure is applied to the location of the injury.
  • Difficulty breathing: You may be short of breath, have difficulty catching up, or feel like you can’t breathe deeply. You may also find it hard to cough and clear secretions.
  • General lack of coordination: This may include feeling unsteady, an unusual gait (style of walking), reflex movements you can’t control, sudden clumsiness, and restricted movement in certain parts of your body.
  • Poor or no bladder or bowel control: This is when you don’t feel in charge of toiletry functions, similar to incontinence or retention.
  • Bruising and swelling: You can see this in the area surrounding the impact. There may also be internal bruising that you can’t see.
  • Numbness, loss of feeling, or tingling: You’re most likely to feel this in your hands, feet and anywhere below the level of the injury. Some people may experience a burning sensation too.

The symptoms of a spinal injury vary from person to person, so err on the side of caution and seek medical help.

Some of these symptoms may not appear straight away. They can, however, develop quickly or gradually in the time following your accident. You increase your chances of fuller recovery when a doctor or consultant sees you.

Can you claim for your spinal injury? 

You may be able to claim compensation for your spine injury. Fletchers Solicitors has represented clients for over 30 years on a no-win, no-fee basis.

​​​If you were injured in an accident on the road, at work or in another situation where someone was responsible for your safety, we’ll assess how much the actions or negligence of others was responsible for what happened to you.​​

​​​If your spinal injury was the result of medical negligence, we investigate the quality of care you received to determine whether your injury could have been prevented. We consider your medical history and identify any lapses in your treatment that might have been responsible for your condition.​​

Our solicitors and trusted outside expert witnesses will determine whether a case can be answered. We aim to secure you a settlement that reflects the suffering you’ve been through, your lost earnings and any other expenses you’ve incurred or will incur in the future.

You’ll find out team friendly, approachable, and professional. Please get in touch with our spinal injury claims team today to find out more. 


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