How Does Spinal Cord Injury Affect the Body?

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How Does Spinal Cord Injury Affect the Body?

Spinal cord injuries are life-altering events that can have a profound impact on the body and mind. The spinal cord is a crucial part of our body, serving as the communication highway between the brain and the rest of the body. It helps us move and carry out many functions we often take for granted. 

In this blog post, we look into the ways a spinal cord injury can affect the body, from physical to psychological aspects.

What is the Spinal Cord?

The spinal cord is a structure made up of nervous tissue, which extends from the brain down through the spinal canal. Imagine it as the body's information highway, responsible for transmitting messages between the brain and the rest of the body. This communication allows us to move our limbs, feel sensations like hot and cold, and control essential functions like breathing and digestion. 

The spinal cord works in close partnership with the brain, forming a system often referred to as the central nervous system. In essence, the brain and spinal cord work in tandem; the brain is the command centre, and the spinal cord is the pathway that allows commands to be sent to various parts of the body and information to be relayed back to the brain.

How are Spinal Cord Injuries Diagnosed?

Diagnosing a spinal cord injury is a critical step that requires immediate medical attention. The process usually starts with a thorough physical examination, where healthcare professionals assess motor skills, sensory functions and reflexes. Following this, imaging tests like X-rays, MRI scans or CT scans may be conducted to get a clearer picture of the damage to the spinal cord. These images can help pinpoint the location and extent of the injury, aiding in the development of a treatment plan.

Time is of the essence when dealing with spinal cord injuries. The sooner the diagnosis is made, the quicker appropriate medical interventions can be initiated, potentially minimising the long-term effects of the injury. 

Due to the complexity and severity of these injuries, you may also undergo various other tests or evaluations by specialists to determine the best course of action for your specific condition.

Types of Spinal Cord Injuries

Spinal cord injuries can be broadly categorised into two types: complete and incomplete. These terms help medical professionals understand the severity of the injury, which in turn guides the treatment and management of the condition.

Complete Spinal Cord Injuries

With a complete spinal cord injury, the communication between the brain and the areas below the point of injury is entirely cut off. This means that there is a total loss of motor and sensory function below the level of the injury. For example, a complete spinal injury at the thoracic level will likely result in paraplegia, affecting the movement in both legs and some abdominal muscles. As well as impacting bladder and bowel control, sexual function and sensation below the level of injury.

Incomplete Spinal Cord Injuries

With an incomplete spinal cord injury, some level of communication between the brain and the areas below the injury site remains. People with incomplete injuries may still have some movement or sensation below the level of the injury. The amount of movement and sensation maintained after injury can vary, depending on factors like the severity and location of the damage to the spinal cord.

Understanding the type of spinal cord injury is important for determining the best course of treatment and predicting possible outcomes. In both cases, immediate medical intervention is vital for minimising the long-term effects and enhancing the prospects of recovery.

Physical Effects of Spinal Cord Injury

A spinal cord injury is likely to have a physical impact which can drastically alter a person’s quality of life. The effects depend largely on two factors: what part of the spinal cord is injured and whether the injury is complete or incomplete.

Impact on Movement

One of the most immediate and noticeable effects of a spinal cord injury is the loss of movement. The extent of paralysis can range from difficulty moving a single limb to quadriplegia, which is the paralysis of all four limbs and the torso. The higher the injury is on the spinal cord, the more extensive the paralysis typically is. For example, an injury in the neck area could result in loss of arm and leg function, while an injury lower down might only affect the legs.

Impact on Sensation

A spinal cord injury often disrupts the ability to feel sensations like touch, heat or cold. This lack of sensation can make it difficult to gauge environmental factors, increasing the risk of additional injuries like burns or pressure sores.

Other Bodily Functions

Beyond movement and sensation, spinal cord injuries can affect a range of bodily functions. These can include difficulties in controlling bladder and bowel movements, irregularities in blood pressure, and challenges in regulating body temperature.

Impact on Blood Pressure

The spinal cord plays an important role in maintaining stable blood pressure by sending signals between the brain and the heart, blood vessels, and other organs. When this communication is disrupted due to an injury, it can lead to irregularities in blood pressure.

Orthostatic Hypotension

One common issue is orthostatic hypotension, which is a sudden drop in blood pressure when changing positions, such as sitting up from a lying position. This can lead to dizziness, fainting and falls, posing additional risks for the individual.

Autonomic Dysreflexia

Another potential complication is autonomic dysreflexia (AD), a life-threatening condition that can cause a sudden and extreme spike in blood pressure. AD is most commonly caused by issues with the urinary tract system, such as infections, blocked catheters or bladder/kidney stones. Other causes include ingrowing toenails, impacted bowels and even ejaculation. Immediate medical attention is vital to identify the cause of the spike in blood pressure and to relieve it..

Impact on Sexual Function

A spinal cord injury can have a significant impact on sexual function for both men and women. The spinal cord is instrumental in transmitting signals between the brain and sexual organs, so any disruption can affect sexual arousal, sensation and performance.

For Men

In men, spinal cord injuries often lead to challenges such as erectile dysfunction and difficulties with ejaculation. There are a number of medications and devices that can help manage these issues, but it's important to consult a healthcare professional prior to trying any treatment for a personalised plan. A change in sensation can affect how fulfilling sexual activity is, however, stimulating areas of the body that retain sensation can be highly arousing, and focussing on the arousal of a partner can also prove satisfying. 

For Women

Women may experience changes in lubrication and reduced sensation, making sexual activity challenging. An over-the-counter lubricant can help (use a water-based one with condoms or sex toys as oil-based ones can cause rubber to break down) and finding arousal in stimulating areas of the body that retain sensation can be equally fulfilling. Finding positions that are comfortable for both parties can be part of the fun of experimenting and exploring what works.  The impact of spinal cord injury on a woman’s fertility is minimal so it’s important to consider protection to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.

Emotional and Psychological Aspects

The emotional and psychological impact associated with a loss of sexual function should not be overlooked. Many people experience a decline in libido and self-esteem following a spinal cord injury, adding another layer of complexity to the issue.

Consultation and Treatment

It's important to consult healthcare providers for personalised advice tailored to your specific condition. Options can range from medication to counselling and physical therapy. In some cases, assistive devices may be recommended to facilitate sexual activity.

While a spinal cord injury can pose significant challenges to sexual function, it's worth noting that many people successfully adapt to these changes and lead fulfilling sexual lives. Being open with your healthcare provider and partner can go a long way in navigating these challenges.

Psychological Effects

The physical impact of a spinal cord injury will inevitably have a considerable impact on mental wellbeing. The sudden change in physical capabilities often leads to emotional and psychological challenges that can be as difficult to manage as the physical symptoms.

Anxiety and Depression

It's common for individuals with spinal cord injuries to experience anxiety and depression. The loss of mobility and independence can be overwhelming, leading to feelings of helplessness and despair.

Identity and Self-Esteem

A spinal cord injury can trigger an identity crisis, causing individuals to question their role in their families, workplaces and communities. This can result in lowered self-esteem and reduced confidence, affecting both personal and professional relationships.

Social Isolation

The physical limitations and/or decline in mental health following a spinal cord injury can lead to social isolation. Reduced mobility often makes it difficult to participate in the workplace or in social activities that were once commonplace, and a desire to participate in these things can be affected by poor mental health, adding another layer of emotional strain.

Seeking Support

Psychological support is vital for anyone coping with a spinal cord injury. Counselling or therapy can provide emotional relief and coping strategies, and support from friends and family is invaluable. Some individuals also find solace in support groups where they can share experiences and tips for managing both physical and emotional challenges.

If you would like more information about the support available after spinal cord injury, visit this page on our website - 

 A Guide to Support Groups for People Affected by Spinal Cord Injury - JMW Solicitors

Talk to Us

If your spinal injury was a result of something that wasn’t your fault, you could be entitled to claim compensation, call our team on 0345 872 6666 or fill in our online contact form and someone will get back to you to discuss your case.

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