The damage in SCI to the spinal cord may be complete or incomplete, depending on the site and degree of injury to the nerve fibres. Incomplete injury can result in movement and sensation abnormalities and a complete injury usually means total loss of movement and sensation – permanent paralysis.
SCI is a permanent and irreversible injury where prevention is the only cure.
More than 10,000 people in Australia have a spinal cord injury, many resulting in quadriplegia or paraplegia. The most common causes of SCI are accidents involving motor vehicle occupants and unprotected road users (including cyclists and pedestrians), as falls, sports injuries and violence. Men in particular are at risk accounting for over 80% of cases.
SCI is typically a young person’s disorder with people aged 15 to 24 being at the greatest risk.
Treatment of spinal cord injuries starts with restraining the spine and controlling inflammation to prevent further damage. The actual treatment can vary widely depending on the location and extent of the injury. In many cases, spinal cord injuries require substantial physical therapy and rehabilitation, especially if the patient’s injury interferes with activities of daily life.
Some studies indicate that as many as one in four spinal cord injured persons deteriorate between the time of their injury and their final arrival in hospital. While some of this deterioration is due to the nature of the injury itself, particularly in the case of multiple or massive trauma, some of it reflects a failure to suspect that a spinal injury has occurred in the first place and to treat the injured person appropriately. If a suspected spinal cord injury is inappropriately or incompletely immobilised, handled, packaged or transported, further damage may well occur. Because of this, paramedics are increasingly trained in identifying spinal cord injury in a range of circumstances and taking action accordingly.
The first stage in the management of a suspected spinal cord injury follows the basic life support principles of resuscitation.
Research into new treatments for spinal cord injuries includes use of stem cells transplants, but this research, though encouraging, is still at an early stage.