Serious Injury

Understanding different types of spinal injuries

May 14, 2024
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Around 2,500 people per year in the United Kingdom are diagnosed with a spinal cord injury. In the UK, the estimated lifetime care cost for someone with a spinal cord injury is £1.12m. 

While not all injuries are life-changing, many are, leading to compensation for those who have experienced them. Whether you’re entitled to a financial settlement depends on the circumstances surrounding your accident, and how much you’re entitled to depends on the severity of your injury. 

In this article, we’ll examine: 

  • Getting to know your spine 
  • Vertebral, complete, and incomplete spinal injuries 
  • The different parts of your spine and what they’re responsible for 
  • Diagnosing your spine injury 
  • The different types of spinal injury 
  • Recovering from a spinal injury 
  • Claiming compensation for a spinal injury 

Getting to know your spine 

Before considering the different types of spinal injuries, knowing what the spine is and why it’s so important is essential. 

There are two important parts to your spine – the vertebral column and the spinal cord. 

The vertebral column consists of 33 vertebrae. Each vertebra is a bone on its own and vary in both shape and size. Your vertebral column manages the weight distribution across your body and keeps your body upright, supporting the weight of your head and torso. 

Each vertebra and the discs between them give you the flexibility to bend, twist, and stretch. They’re tough too, protecting your body against shocks and other physical impacts. 

The most important job of your vertebral column is to protect your spinal cord. 

The spinal cord starts at the base of your brain and extends to the bottom of your torso, running runs through central holes in your vertebrae called “foramen.” It’s a long, thin bundle of nervous tissue and support cells that acts as a means of connecting information from your brain to the rest of your body. 

Thanks to this, the spinal cord allows you to move parts of your body on command. It’s also responsible for gathering physical inputs around your body, making you feel hot and cold.  

The spinal cord also controls your reflexes – automatic responses to external stimuli like flinching when you touch something sharp or withdraw your hand quickly from a hot surface. 

What are the different types of spinal cord injury? 

Eight of the most common types of spinal cord injuries you may be diagnosed with include: 

1. Whiplash 

Whiplash is a neck injury caused by a rapid and forceful back-and-forth neck movement. Common symptoms include neck pain and stiffness, headaches, difficulty moving your head, and spasms in your arms and shoulders.  

Whiplash is a common injury suffered in car accidents, especially rear collisions and during sporting activities. 

The injury itself usually affects the muscles, ligaments, and soft tissues of the neck, but in some cases, the spinal cord can be affected. The treatment for whiplash can involve pain management through medication, physical therapy, and, in severe cases, temporary immobilisation of the neck. 

2. Herniated disc 

When the soft centre of a spinal disc manages to push through a crack in its exterior casing, this is called a herniated disc 

Herniated discs can cause leg or arm pain, weakness, tingling, and numbing. Sometimes, you may have a herniated disc and have no symptoms at all. You’re more prone to suffer from one as a result of prolonged straining of your back. For example, if you do lots of physical work or frequent driving. 

To treat the condition, doctors usually recommend physical therapy, pain relief medication, and, if the condition doesn’t improve, surgery. 

3. Compression fracture 

Compression fractures are fractures of your vertebrae. More commonly associated with conditions like osteoporosis, you can also experience a compression fracture as the result of a significant fall.  

Compression fracture symptoms include a hunched posture, reduced height over time, and back pain. Numbness, difficulty walking, and loss of bladder or bowel control are rarer side effects. 

Treatment focuses on pain management, and you may be offered a brace to help stabilise and straighten your spine. For more severe cases, vertebroplasty and kyphoplasty surgery may be required.  

4. Spinal stenosis 

Your spinal cord runs through the foramen and holes in your vertebrae. Spinal stenosis is where this gap in your vertebrae narrows, compressing your spinal cord and its associated nerves.  

Common symptoms include weakness in a particular foot, loss of sensation in the feet, back pain, burning pain from the buttocks into the legs (like sciatica), and issues with your legs (including cramping, weakness, tingling, and numbness). 

The condition is most common in people over 50 or those with pre-existing health issues like scoliosis. Traumatic injuries from incidents like car accidents can bring on stenosis, too. 

Stenosis patients are generally put on medication to manage the pain. In some cases, you might also get steroid shots to soothe swollen nerve routes and undergo a needle procedure for thickened ligaments in your lumbar spine. Doctors will also recommend you go through a course of physical therapy. 

5. Spinal contusions 

Spinal contusions result from an injury to the uppermost part of your spine. Common symptoms include tingling, numbness, and weakness in your arms, legs, and extremities.  

Sometimes called “transient quadriplegia” or “cervical neurapraxia,” people who take part in gymnastics, diving, rugby, wrestling, and other strenuous activities are vulnerable because of the extreme head and neck movements involved in these sports. 

If you have these symptoms, you should report to A&E immediately. Depending on the outcome of the tests, you may be put on a physical therapy regimen as well as a course of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. In severe cases, surgery may be needed.  

People with a spinal contusion should only return to their sport when their doctor has said that it’s safe to do so. 

6. Spinal cord lacerations 

Tears and cuts in your spinal cord are called “lacerations.” They can cause a complete loss of feeling and sensation below the level of your injury. The higher the location of the laceration, the larger the proportion of your body that’s affected.  

This is a very serious and often life-changing injury that can cause a range of conditions, including sexual dysfunction, deep vein thrombosis, and loss of bladder and bowel control. You’re likely to need long-term rehabilitation and care following a laceration. 

7. Central cord syndrome 

Central cord syndrome is a condition where there is a block that prevents nerve signals from your brain from reaching your legs, arms, and hands. The syndrome can be a progression from spinal stenosis, mentioned earlier, or be caused by a traumatic injury.  

While you might not be completely paralysed, you might experience significant weakness in your legs and arms. In addition, you may suffer from fluctuating blood pressure, muscle spasms, bowel, and bladder problems, breathing problems, and blood clots.  

Treatment is intense and involves medication, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and, occasionally, immobilisation. You may also require surgery. You’re more likely to recover a greater proportion of your nerve function during your recovery the younger you are. 

8. Cauda equina syndrome 

The nerve roots in your spinal cord located around the central region of your spine connect to your legs and bladder. When a herniated disc or an injury to this part of your spine results in compressed nerves, this is cauda equina syndrome, and it’s considered a medical emergency. 

Although it’s not life-threatening, it can affect your sexual activity and bladder/bowel control in the long term. You may also likely experience paralysis or weakness in the lower parts of your body and numbness in certain areas below the waist. 

You will almost certainly need surgery to treat cauda equina syndrome. This will be followed by treatment from an occupational and physical therapist as well as medication. It may take months or years, but over time, you should regain more control of your body, and the pain should also subside.  

Vertebral, complete, and incomplete spinal injuries 

When we talk about spinal injuries, we’re referring to injuries to the vertebral column or the spinal cord. 

The three main types of spinal injury are:  

  • Vertebral injury: You can fracture, dislocate, or damage one or more of your vertebrae in an accident without damaging your spinal cord.
     
  • Complete spinal injury: This is a traumatic injury to the spinal cord, which results in a total loss of motor function and feelings below where a person was injured.
     
  • Incomplete spinal injury: Unlike a complete spinal injury, where no signals can get past your injury to and from the rest of your body, there is some remaining function and feeling with an incomplete spinal injury.
     

The different parts of your spine and what they’re responsible for 

The effects of a spinal injury vary depending on whether it was a vertebral, complete, or incomplete injury and the location of the injury along your spine. 

The spine has four main parts – the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral. 

Parts of your spine – cervical 

The cervical part of your spine is the highest point, and it’s critically positioned because of how close it is to your brain stem.      This part of your body translates what your brain wants and turns them into instructions sent down the spinal cord to your body. 

Severe injuries to your cervical spine area can lead to quadriplegia (paralysis of all four limbs). Occasionally, it can also cause respiratory problems because it’s connected to your diaphragm, the muscle responsible for breathing. 

Parts of your spine – thoracic 

The thoracic part of your spine is below the cervical section and runs down the middle of your spine. It has 12 vertebrae, which are connected to your rib cage. This part of your back is less flexible, and injuries can affect your balance and posture. 

Because of where it is in your body, injuries to your thoracic section can affect your breathing.  

If you experience severe damage, it can cause paraplegia, which can lead to paralysis in the lower body and legs. This may make walking so difficult that you have to rely on a mobility aid like a wheelchair. 

Parts of your spine – lumbar 

Beneath the thoracic part of your spine is the lumbar section. This is responsible for carrying the bulk of your body weight and allowing movements like twisting and bending. 

A severe injury to the lumbar section can be life-changing and lead to partial or complete paralysis from your hips downwards. Less severe injuries can cause loss of feelings in your legs, dulled reflexes, and impaired sensations. 

Parts of your spine – sacral 

At the base of your spine is the sacral region. Like your lumbar section, it’s made up of five vertebrae. It connects to your hips and supports your pelvic organs. 

Injuries to the sacral area can cause sexual dysfunction, difficulties with your leg movements, and trouble controlling your bladder and bowel, all of which will significantly affect your quality of life. 

How is a spinal injury diagnosed? 

The investigation into your spinal injury begins the minute you arrive in A&E. 

They’ll check your sensory functions with a series of tests. Standard tests include placing a tuning fork on the part of your body to see if you detect the vibrations or gently pressing a tube of hot or cold water on you to determine whether you can detect the temperature. 

If you’re experiencing neck pain, you’re not fully conscious, or you are suffering from weakness in certain parts of your body, they’ll carry out emergency diagnostic tests. These will determine what type of spinal injury you have and how severe it is. 

You may undergo one or more of the following five tests: 

  • X-ray: X-rays help determine damage like fractures and dislocations to your vertebrae.
     
  • CT scan: CT scans take much more detailed images of the bones and discs in your vertebral column. You’ll likely be taken for a CT scan if the X-ray results are not as conclusive as the doctors and consultants want.

    CT scans are better for finding cases of spinal misalignment and instability as well as complex fractures.
     

  • MRI scan: MRI scans are powerful tests that use radio waves and magnetic fields to look for blood clots, spinal compression, and herniated discs. MRI scans are much better for spotting damage to the spinal cord’s soft tissues.
     
  • Electromyography scan: Electromyography scans measure the level of electrical activity in your muscles. They can diagnose conditions that affect the muscle tissues in your spine or any of the nerves that supply them.
     
  • Nerve conduction scan: Nerve conduction scans are related to electromyography scans, but they test how well electrical signals travel along a nerve. This is a reliable way of identifying if there is any damage to your nerves and the extent of that damage. 

 

These tests all help the medical team look after you come to a thorough and accurate diagnosis. 

Recovering from a spinal injury 

While damage to vertebrae can heal, damage to your spinal cord can’t be. Once the full extent of your injury is known, your medical professionals will plan a recovery program for you that will allow you to maximise your quality of life. 

As aforementioned, your initial period of recovery may include one or more of the following treatments: 

  • Pharmacological: Several medicines are available to treat spinal injuries, including corticosteroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and anticonvulsants.
     
  • Traction: Traction is a decompression therapy designed to relieve pressure on your spine. As well as helping to reduce back and neck pain, it can treat pinched nerves, sciatica, and herniated discs, among other conditions.
     
  • Surgical: A range of surgical options are available to treat spine injuries, from the minimally invasive to laminectomies and kyphoplasties. The type of surgery you’ll be recommended will depend on your injury.
     

You’ll typically stay in the hospital until you can participate in other treatments and therapies, which may involve transferring to a rehabilitation centre or treatment from home. 

Rehabilitation involves building strength and feeling back to the affected areas of your body, if possible. You may need to relearn some fine motor skills and strengthen general muscle function. Your rehabilitation team will help you adapt to everyday tasks to the fullest extent. Sometimes, your home and/or vehicles may need modification to suit your new circumstances better. 

Doctors may recommend that you stay on medication for a prolonged period, especially if your spinal injury has affected sexual function or your bowel or bladder control. You may need additional medicines in the shorter term to deal with muscle spasms and pain. 

Understanding when you have a claim 

If someone else was to blame for your spinal injury or the severity of your injury was made worse by the care you received in the hospital, you may be entitled to compensation. 

Our serious injury and medical negligence solicitors have worked with clients for over 30 years, ensuring they receive justice for what’s happened to them and compensation for their suffering and financial losses. 

When we take on a new client, we thoroughly investigate the accident that caused your injury whether it occurred in a road traffic accident, at work, or during sports activities.  

In cases where your injury may have been caused by medical negligence, we examine the quality of care you received to determine whether your injury could have been prevented. We take into account your medical history and try to identify if there were any lapses in your treatment that led to your injury. 

When working out a compensation figure, we approach the other party’s insurers with a claim that includes financial recognition for your suffering, lost earnings, medical expenses, rehabilitation costs, and costs to adapt your home and vehicle. 

Our service is no win, no fee. Please get in touch with our spinal injury claims team today. 

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