Have you or a loved one experienced a spinal cord injury? Talk to an attorney at Arnold & Itkin. We help clients in Houston, Dallas, Baton Rouge, and nationwide. Call (888) 493-1629!
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Types of Neck, Back & Spinal Cord Injuries
Various types of injuries can impact the neck, back, and spinal cord, all of which are painful but vary in the level of damage they can cause. Some injuries can cause days, weeks, or months of recovery time, while others can change the entire life of the person who sustained them. Below, our Houston injury attorneys explain some of the most severe injuries to this region of the body, as well as helpful information about diagnosis, treatment, and more.
If you have questions or want to discuss further during a free case review, call us today.
Table of Contents
Bulging & Herniated Discs
Discs sit between each spinal vertebrae. These discs are flat, cushion-like objects made of an outer shell of hard cartilage and an inner core of softer cartilage. Injuries to discs can be excruciatingly painful.
Two prevalent disc injuries are bulging and herniated discs:
- Bulging Disc: Begins to extend beyond the intervertebral space it occupies. The bulge typically affects most of the disc.
- Herniated Disc: Occurs when a crack in the external cartilage allows some soft, inner cartilage to poke out of the disc.
Disc injuries can be hard to diagnose, as symptoms usually begin as undefined pain in the arms, legs, feet, and hands. People may also experience severe, unrelenting neck or lower back pain. Patients with disc injuries may also suffer from numbness, tingling, weakened muscles, slowed reflexes, or paralysis. Treatments for these orthopedic injuries usually begin with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain medications (NSAIDs). Other times, an epidural steroid injection (cortisone shot) will be applied to the spine adjacent to the affected disc. Surgical correction may be necessary if non-surgical treatments have been exhausted and the patient is still in pain.
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A fracture of one or more spinal vertebrae is a serious medical condition. Unless a victim suffers from an underlying disease that weakens the bones, the trauma necessary to fracture vertebrae is usually quite severe.
Types of Vertebra Fracture Patterns
There are different types of vertebral fractures, classified by the pattern of the injury and the presence or absence of a complicating spinal cord injury. While most compression fractures occur in the mid or lower back, some fractures occur between the mid and lower back (thoracolumbar junction).
- Compression: The front of the vertebra breaks and sags, but the back doesn't.
- Axial Burst: The vertebra loses height on its front and back sides.
- Flexion / Distraction: The vertebra is pulled apart.
- Transverse Process: Rotation or extreme lateral bending of the vertebra (this is extremely rare).
- Fracture-Dislocation: An unstable injury where a vertebra is broken and ligaments are torn.
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Paraplegia & Quadriplegia
Paralysis is the loss of nerve and muscle function in one or more limbs. This injury often results from spinal cord damage. It can have a partial or total effect on the body, depending on where the damage occurred.
- Paraplegia is the paralysis of both lower limbs that often happens due to spinal cord trauma, most likely resulting from some accident. However, there are cases when illness causes it.
- Quadriplegia is when the damage is located in the cervical region of the spine and affects all four limbs. Most of these spinal cord traumas involve the loss of sensation and function below the level of injury. Often, these paralyzed individuals end up in wheelchairs and need some form of assisted living.
Given that the average paralyzed victim is male, 31 years of age, and will have to adjust to life in a wheelchair, the damage can be lifelong, especially if the male is considered the breadwinner for the family. In addition to medical expenses that can range into six and seven figures, victims also face limited earning potential due to their condition. As a result, many who suffer paralysis can face bankruptcy and depression.
Cervical Spinal Cord Injury (C1 - C8)
This affects the upper portion of the spinal cord and leaves victims with either severe weakness or paralysis.
As this is higher up the spine, the consequences are more severe, including:
- Loss of sensation
- Inability to breathe without assistive equipment
- Inability to control signals
- Dysfunction of the bowel and bladder
- Needing a brace or permanent stabilization
Thoracic Spinal Cord Injury (T1 - T12)
This affects the middle portion of the spine and will cause paralysis in the legs.
Victims of a thoracic injury experience:
- Full and uninhibited control of their arms
- Loss of physical sensation
- Bowel and bladder dysfunction
Lumbar Spinal Cord Injury (L1 - L5)
These are injuries in the lower portion of the spine (the lumbar) and will cause loss of motor function in the legs.
Lumbar spinal cord injuries yield different consequences:
- Inhibited control of the buttocks, genital organs, and abdomen
- Surgical intervention is often required
Sacral Spinal Cord Injury (S1 - S5)
This is an injury at the end of the spine, affecting bowel and bladder function.
In many cases, paralysis will also affect:
- Hips and legs
- Weakness or lack of control of the thigh
- Calves, feet, and genital organs
Cutting-Edge Spinal Injury Research: Discovering a Cure for Paralysis
To help discover a cure for the paralysis caused by spinal cord injuries, the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation supports various cutting-edge research projects. Current focus areas include neuroprotection, axon growth, growth inhibition, and stem cell research. After a spinal cord injury, cellular damage continues as the immune system and other processes triggered by trauma kill off cells that survived. This problem, known as apoptosis, can sap a victim of additional function. If this biological ripple effect could be prevented or contained, the injury might wreak less havoc. Research is currently being conducted into curbing apoptosis.
Spine injuries destroy axons, but often neurons remain intact. While these don't produce new axons or repair damaged ones, researchers are studying methods that might cause the neurons to do just that. One approach attempts to reboot neuron development, so new axons grow and recreate disrupted nerve circuits.
Once damaged, cells in the central nervous system don't repair themselves, unlike cells in other parts of the body. After extensive research, scientists believe they've discovered the reason for this: the body's trauma responses prevent the growth of new axons by making the area surrounding an injury hostile to cellular growth.
Treatments will likely soon be developed to block growth-inhibiting molecules or prevent them from gathering at the injury site so the body can repair. The good news is scientists are getting better at regenerating axons. The bad news is these new axons must still travel long distances to rebuild nerve circuitry and restore function. Even if that occurs, neurotransmitters must also be restored. Because of these challenges, many researchers are studying the function of guidance molecules that help axons connect with the rest of the neural circuitry.
The Possibility of Stem Cell Research
If doctors can restore the functioning circuits, injured spinal cords could, in theory, be repaired. Embryonic stem cells can be formed into any tissue. Neural progenitor stem cells could repair damaged spinal cords if researchers learn how to control their development. Researchers are working on understanding the basic functions of these stem cells so that they might one day restore function to people with these injuries.
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Effects of Spinal Cord Injuries
Injury to the spinal cord may have varied, significant effects on the body. These include:
- Breathing - An injury at or above the C3, C4, and C5 segments can stop or impair breathing. People with these injuries will likely need to be placed on a ventilator. Injuries at the C5 level and below still tend to affect breathing, usually resulting in rapid breaths and difficulties with coughing.
- Irregular Heartbeat & Low Blood Pressure - Injuries in the cervical region often result in unstable blood pressure and heart arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat). Irregularities usually emerge in the first two weeks after injury; in more severe injuries, these problems are worse. Low blood pressure often occurs due to loss of tone in blood vessels, which widen and cause blood to pool in the small arteries far away from the heart. IV infusions can help correct this problem by restoring blood volume.
- Blood Clots - People with spinal cord injuries are at an increased risk for blood clots.
- Spasms - When the spinal cord is damaged, information from the brain stops regulating reflexes, making them exaggerated and spastic. If spasms are severe, they may require medical treatment.
- Autonomic Dysreflexia – This is a life-threatening reflex affecting people with injuries in the neck or upper back. When a stimulus appears below the level of injury, the affected region tries to send a signal to the brain, but since it can't get through, a reflex occurs without regulation. These reflexes can affect blood flow, organ function, and any other process controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. It can result in increased blood pressure or rapid heartbeat, strokes, seizures, or death.
- Pressure Sores - Skin tissue can break down under constant pressure. Since people with paralysis can't move easily on their own, they can develop pressure sores if not rotated or offered appropriate diets to encourage healthy skin development.
- Bladder & Bowel Problems - Most spinal cord injuries affect bladder and bowel function because the nerves that control those organs begin near the base of the cord. Since bowel function is difficult to regulate, spine injury victims are usually put on a regularly scheduled bowel program. Most people will need to have a catheter implanted to control bladder function and prevent infections.
- Reproductive & Sexual Function - Spinal cord injury has a more significant impact on sexual and reproductive function in men than in women. Men may have problems achieving erections or experiencing ejaculation. Most women with these injuries can still conceive and carry a pregnancy.
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Diagnosing Spinal Cord Injuries
Spine injuries are not always easy to diagnose, and delayed/missed diagnoses may lead to more severe injuries. Doctors must conduct careful patient inspections and ask comprehensive questions to diagnose a spine injury.
Emergency diagnostic tests should be conducted if an injured person:
- Complains of neck pain
- Isn't fully conscious
- Shows signs of weakness
- Shows symptoms of neurological injury
The following tests may be used to diagnose a spinal injury:
- X-Ray: Usually performed on people suspected of having incurred a spinal cord injury due to trauma. X-rays can reveal vertebral problems, tumors, fractures, or degenerative changes.
- Computerized tomography (CT) Scan: A CT scan usually comes after an X-ray to provide a better look at noted abnormalities. This scan uses computers to form a series of cross-sectional images that can define bone, disk, and other problems.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): MRIs use strong magnetic fields and radio waves to produce computer-generated images and are helpful in examining the spinal cord further,
In addition to initial diagnostic exams, neurological exams should be conducted when some of the swelling has subsided. These tests will help determine the level and completeness of the injury.
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Treatment for Spinal Cord Injuries
Current treatments for spinal cord injuries focus on preventing further complications and allowing patients to return to as active a life as possible. When the spine injury is due to an accident, urgent medical attention is critical to minimize the effects of any trauma. This is why treatment for a spinal cord injury begins at the scene of the accident. Emergency responders should immobilize the spine as gently and quickly as possible, using a rigid neck collar and a rigid carrying board, which will be used to transport the patient to the hospital.
During the early stages of treatment, care should be focused on maintaining the ability to breathe, preventing shock, preventing further damage, and avoiding complications. Sedation may be necessary to keep a patient immobile and prevent further damage while diagnostic tests are performed. If a spine injury victim is given methylprednisolone within eight hours of an injury, he or she may experience a mild improvement in the outcome because the drug helps reduce damage to nerve cells and decrease inflammation near the injury.
Traction to stabilize or align the spine may be necessary. Traction may involve securing metal braces attached to weights or a body harness to the skull to keep the head stable. A rigid neck collar may work in less severe cases. In some cases, surgery may be needed to remove items compressing the spine or to stabilize it further.
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Rehabilitation for Spinal Cord Injuries
Rehabilitation should begin in the early stages of recovery. Picking an appropriate facility can significantly assist a patient's return to daily life after a spinal cord injury. While some patients may be lucky enough to have cutting-edge centers close to their homes, others may need to travel to find the best possible care available.
Consider the following when choosing where to undergo spinal cord injury rehabilitation:
- Does the facility have experience with your particular diagnosis? Researching the center's track record with your specific injury will help ensure you receive the best available care.
- Is the place accredited? A facility that can boast accredited expertise with your specific injury is usually a better choice for a spinal cord injury victim than a general rehabilitation program.
A good spinal cord injury rehabilitation center should have the following experts on staff:
- Physiatrist: A doctor who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation. Physiatrists can treat a wide range of problems and help coordinate long-term rehabilitation for patients.
- Rehab Nurse: Nurses with special training in rehabilitative and restorative principles. These professionals are experts in bladder and bowel issues, nutrition, pain management, bedsore prevention, breathing care, self-empowerment, coordination of medical regimens, and related issues. Their education includes helping patients achieve independence and designing care plans.
- Occupational Therapists: Occupational therapists (OTs) help individuals perform the daily functions needed for independence. OTs can help patients learn to bathe, dress, make a meal, clean, or even participate in a favorite hobby. OTs also evaluate environments outside of the rehab facility.
- Physical Therapists: Physical therapists (PTs) treat motor and sensory impairments. They help patients improve their strength, endurance, and coordination while reducing spasticity, maintaining muscle integrity in paralyzed limbs, protecting skin from pressure sores, and gaining greater control over elimination. PTs also work with paralyzed people to help them use assistive devices.
Other staff members that indicate a top-notch facility:
- Recreation therapists to help restore the quality and enjoyment of life.
- Vocational therapists to help patients return to their previous jobs or find new ones.
- Mobility experts to help people select the best wheelchair or another mobility assistant.
- Psychologists to help patients adjust to the realities of post-injury life.
- Sex and family counselors to help patients understand what options are still available to them.
Restoring Function & Mobility
In the beginning, therapists will usually focus on maintaining and strengthening existing muscle function, relearning fine motor skills, and working on techniques that will allow the patient to accomplish daily tasks.
Other portions of rehabilitation will include:
- Oral medications
- Orthopedic procedures
- Bracing and splinting
- Injectable medications
Therapy can improve some patients' physical function in the upper extremities. Exercises designed to stimulate nerve re-education, muscle strengthening, task training, and others can help reduce long-term complications and regain the ability to perform self-care and other daily activities.
Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES)
Functional electrical stimulation (FES) works to improve functional abilities by using computer technology to send low-level electrical impulses to contract muscles in the legs, arms, hands, or other areas. This may promote improvements in muscle tone or control. FES may also improve range of motion, strength, and functional use of limbs. FES may allow patients to grasp an item or move limbs in a stepping motion. It can also help patients perform exercise to improve blood circulation, aerobic conditioning, heart health, and well-being. FES can also help improve muscle movement patterns, prevent bone density loss, and reduce spasticity.
Another form of therapy is diaphragm pacing, which involves a minimally invasive procedure to implant four electrodes into the diaphragm muscle and a fifth just below the skin near other electrodes. These electrodes are connected to an external stimulator, causing the diaphragm to contract and helping with breathing.
Diaphragm pacing can have the following benefits:
- Reduce or eliminate the need for a ventilator
- Help patients breathe and speak more naturally
- Make daily activities easier to accomplish
- Decrease the risk of contracting respiratory infections
- Improve senses of smell and taste
- Increase mobility
- Reduce the need for external power sources to maintain breath
Wheelchair programs at rehabilitation centers will assess patients to determine what mobility assistance they will require to navigate their environments. A good program should allow the patient to try various manual and power wheelchairs in different challenges.
Selecting the appropriate wheelchair will allow a patient to:
- Maximize independence and safety in the home
- Improve posture and function in the wheelchair
- Prevent secondary problems from improper seating
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Talk to Our Houston Spinal Cord Injury Lawyers During a Free Case Review
If diagnosed with a spinal cord injury, you could be facing extensive medical bills related to tests and treatment. Furthermore, you are likely debilitated to the point that you cannot work, meaning that the hospital bills will continue to be more and more difficult to pay. If the incident causing this spinal cord injury was not your fault, you may be eligible for receiving financial compensation to help take care of your future.
We at Arnold & Itkin dedicate our practice to advocating for the wrongfully injured. If you or a loved one has suffered paralysis or a spinal cord injury because of someone else's wrongdoing, we want to help. Our team can identify the responsible parties and seek extensive damages for the tragedy that has befallen your family. We have recovered more than $15 billion on behalf of our clients, including record-setting case victories. You can count on us to do the hard work and fight to ensure you and your family get the best result possible, no matter what.
We want to help you identify the liable party and begin fighting for the retribution you deserve. Call (888) 493-1629 today.