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Spinal Cord Injury : Types of Injury, Diagnosis and Treatment

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Spinal cord injury is defined as traumatic damage to the spinal cord or nerves at the end of the spinal canal. This affects the conduction of sensory and motor signals across the site of the lesion.

There are two types:

  • Incomplete
  • Complete

Incomplete Lesion: not all the nerves are severed or the nerves are only slightly damaged. Recovery is possible, but never to the pre-injury level.

Complete lesion: the nerves are severed and there is no motor or sensory function preserved of this point.

Spinal Cord Injury

Clinically Relevant Anatomy

The spinal cord is the major conduit through which motor and sensory information travel between brain and body. The spinal cord contains longitudinally oriented spinal tracts (white matter) surrounding central areas (gray matter) where most spinal neuronal cell bodies are located.

The grey matter is organized into segments comprising sensory and motor neurons.Axons from spinal sensory neurons enter and axons from motor neurons leave the spinal cord via segmental nerves or roots.

The roots are numbered and named according to the foramina through which they enter/exit the vertebral column. Each root receives sensory information from skin areas called dermatomes. Similarly, each root innervates a group of muscles called a myotome.

The spinal column is divided into four regions: Cervical (7 vertebrae), thoracic (12 vertebrae), lumbar (5 vertebrae), and sacral (5 vertebrae).


A recent systematic review found the prevalence of Spinal Cord Injury to be dependent on the region the studies were conducted in, ranging from 906 per million in the USA up to 250 per million in Rhone-Alpes, France.

Annual incidence rates also varied significantly between regions, ranging from 49.1 per million in New Zealand to 8.0 per million in Spain.

A further review found similar results with prevalence ranging from 1298 per million to 50 per million and incidence ranging from 246 per million to 3.3 per million.

These results indicate that the incidence, prevalence, and causation of Spinal Cord Injury can differ significantly between developing and developed countries (high in developed countries).

Strong inconsistencies in data were noted when analyzed between countries but the most frequent causes of Spinal Cord Injury reported are, in order;

  • Motor Vehicle Accidents
  • Falls
  • Sport Injuries
  • Violence
  • Self-harm
  • Work-related Accidents
Spinal Cord Injury

Characteristics / Clinical Presentation

As spinal cord injuries are by definition caused by traumas, the primary examination and presentation will be done in an emergency response setting. Initial evaluation includes a pulmonary evaluation to determine loss of ventilatory function and/or lung injury.

Signs of hemorrhage and neurogenic shock are also checked in this initial evaluation.

Finally, and most relevant to physical therapy, neurologic assessment is done which includes checking motor function, sensory evaluation, deep tendon reflexes, and perineal evaluation.

The ASIA (American Spinal Injury Association) has established an international standard neurological which can be used to classify the lesion according to a specific cord syndrome.

This includes motor and sensory evaluation. This also includes an impairment scale which indicates the severity of the lesion.

The clinical outcomes of SCI depend on the severity and location of the lesion and may include partial or complete loss of sensory and/or motor function below the level of injury.

Lower thoracic lesions can cause paraplegia (Traumatic Paraplegia)

Cervical level lesions are associated with quadriplegia.

SCI typically affects: the cervical level of the spinal cord (50%) with the single most common level affected being C5; thoracic level (35%); lumbar region (11%).

With recent advancements in medical procedures and patient care, SCI patients often survive these traumatic injuries and live for decades after the initial injury.

The life expectancy of SCI patients highly depends on the level of injury and preserved functions eg ASIA Impairment Scale (AIS) grade D, requiring a wheelchair for daily activities have an estimated 75% of a normal life expectancy; patients not requiring wheelchair and catheterization can have a higher life expectancy up to 90% of a normal individual[1].

Spinal Cord Injury

Differential Diagnosis

  • Aortic Artery Dissection
  • Epidural and Subdural Infections
  • Spinal Cord Infections
  • Syphilis (Tertiary)
  • Vertebral Fracture and here
  • Transverse Myelitis
  • Acute Intervertebral Disk Herniation
  • Spinal Abscess

Medical Management

The ideal management of acute spinal cord injury is a combination of pharmacological therapy, early surgery, aggressive volume resuscitation, and blood pressure elevation to maximize spinal cord perfusion, early rehabilitation, and cellular therapies.

Pharmacological Intervention

There is still no commonly accepted pharmacological agent. The most important candidates are:

Glucocorticoids (Methylprednisolone), which suppress many of the ‘secondary’ events of spinal cord injury. These are inflammation, lipid peroxidation, and excitotoxicity. Randomized clinical trials are contradictory in their results and so are the opinions of experts.

Thyrotropin-releasing Hormone (TRH) shows antagonistic effects against the secondary injury mediators.

Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA) such as Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) have recently been explored for spinal cord injury management. It is said to improve neurological recovery through increased neuronal and oligodendrocyte survival and decreased microglia/macrophage responses, which reduces the axonal accumulation of B-Amyloid Precursor Protein (b-APP) and increases synaptic connectivity. Similarly Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) increases synaptic connectivity, to restore neuro-plasticity.

Surgical Intervention

  • Early surgical decompression results in a better neurological outcome.
  • Cellular Therapy Interventions
  • Traumatic SCI represents heterogeneous and complex pathophysiology. While pre-clinical research on SCI has been an ongoing endeavor for over a century, our understanding of SCI mechanisms has been increased remarkably over the past few decades. This is mainly due to the development of new transgenic and preclinical animal models that has facilitated rapid discoveries in SCI mechanisms. Although SCI research has made an impressive advancement, much work is still needed to translate the gained knowledge from animal studies to clinical applications in humans.
  • The aim of cellular therapies is to provide functional recovery of the deficit through axonal regeneration and restoration.
  • Schwann Cell is one of the most widely used cell types for the repair of the spinal cord.
  • Olfactory Ensheating Cells are capable of promoting axonal regeneration and remyelination after injury.
  • Bone Marrow derived Mononuclear Cells (BM-MNC’s) transplantation is feasible, safe, and has a good degree of outcome improvement.
  • Stimulated Macrophages invade the impaired tissue.

Diagnostic Procedures

Imaging technology is an important part of the diagnostic process of acute or chronic spinal cord injuries. Spinal cord injuries can be detected using different types of imaging which depends on the type of underlying pathology.

MRI Scans have become the golden standard for imaging neurological tissues such as the spinal cord, ligaments, discs, and other soft tissues. Only MRI sequences of sagittal T2 were found to be useful for prognosticative purposes.

Spinal fractures and bony lesions are better characterized by computed tomography (CT) and vascular injuries can be detected by using an MR angiography or by a CT scan.


A diagnosis can be made through a thorough history and examination. By performing a neurological examination, if possible to participate in a reliable physical neurological examination, for the sensory and motoric functions of the body in the corresponding area of complaints.

After the examination, we can make a judgment of the severity and the location of the injury.

If the place of injury is diagnosed we can perform some extra examinations as described on the following pages:

  • Cervical Examination
  • Lumbar Examination
  • Thoracic Examination
Spinal Cord Injury


The rehabilitation of patients who had a spinal cord injury depends on which level of the spine the injury occurred. Also, the therapy depends on whether it was a complete or incomplete spinal cord injury.

In case of an incomplete spinal cord injury, 25% do not become independent ambulators. The therapies differ according to where the lesion happened, cervical, thoracic, or lumbar. The rehabilitation of SCI is a multidisciplinary approach!

Possible Upper Incomplete SCI Therapy:

When the cervical spine is injured, the consequences for the patient are life-changing. Patients need therapy for movement and strength recovery of the upper body and probable respiratory training.

Respiratory muscle training consists of inspiratory, expiratory, or both improvements in muscle strength and endurance. Normocapnic hyperpnoea is a method of respiratory muscle endurance training that simultaneously trains the inspiratory and expiratory muscles.

This device consists of a re-breathing bag that works at 30 to 40% of the patient’s vital capacity and is connected to a tube system and mouthpiece.[18] The patient must fill and empty the bag completely with each breath. Other respiratory muscle training exists and is also effective.

The study by Holmlund T et al. guides the clinician in the rehabilitation program for persons with SCI to meet required physical activity levels. Spinal immobilization should be the primary focus in patients with bone or ligament injuries and the prevention of inducing spinal cord injury.

Training of the upper limb after SCI consists usually of specific exercises or conventional therapy using Bobath principles combined with functional electrical stimulation.

Possible Lower Incomplete SCI Therapy:

The main limitations with lower incomplete SCI patients are that they have reduced coordination, leg paresis, and impaired balance. These limitations can be worked on with the use of braces and tilt tables.

If the leg strength improves, therapists can use braces, parallel bars, and other walking aids to work on the balance weight-bearing of the patient. In combination with those instruments, the therapist needs to train the patient using the repetitive and intensive practice of gait.

The use of a treadmill with an overhead harness is applied to certain SCI cases and only by choice of the therapist. Thanks to the harness, patients can more easily focus on their gait under the supervision of their therapist. In addition to this therapy, the use of functional electrical stimulation is needed to optimize the rehabilitation of the patient.

New therapies are emerging and showing positive evolution, such as robotic-assisted gait training. This therapy uses a treatment of 40 minutes twice a day at a rate of 5 times a week. 3 days using robotic-gait training and 2 days of regular physical therapy. Included in the regular physical therapy are, functional electrical stimulation and physical therapy using the Bobath principles.

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