When your spinal cord is injured in a car accident, the key piece of information an emergency responder will need first is where along the spinal cord the damage has occurred. This is because the closer to the top of the spine the cord is damaged, the greater the effect on the body will be. Learning the basics of how the spinal cord works is a good starting point for understanding this serious injury. After that, you need to know how a particular injury will affect the victim.
Levels of Spinal Cord Injury
The spinal cord is about 18 inches long and is surrounded by rings of bone called the vertebrae. Together, the spinal cord and vertebrae are known as the backbone. The backbone starts at the base of the skull and ends just above the hips. For injury-assessment purposes, the vertebrae are grouped into sections. Each section controls the muscles and sensations in a different part of the body, so an injury to that section will affect those particular body functions. The following is a brief explanation of the effects of damage to each section of vertebrae.
Damage to the first four vertebrae at the top of the backbone result in the most extreme of all spinal cord injuries. An injury to this section could result in:
- Paralysis in arms, hands, trunk and legs
- Inability to breathe, cough, or control bowel or bladder movements
- Ability to speak is sometimes impaired or reduced.
- Requires complete assistance with activities of daily living, such as eating, dressing, bathing, and getting in or out of bed
The next four vertebrae protect the part of the spinal cord that controls the upper limbs. Depending on where the damage occurs within this section, victims may experience:
- Some or total paralysis of wrists, hands, trunk and legs
- Can speak and use the diaphragm, but breathing will be weakened
- Little or no voluntary control of bowel or bladder, but may be able to manage on their own with special equipment
- May need assistance with tasks of daily living
- Will most likely need to use a wheelchair, but may have the ability to control a power wheelchair
With an injury to the vertebrae in the middle back, arm and hand function are usually not affected. If the nerves in the upper middle back are injured, chest and abdominal function and strength may be lost. In general, thoracic nerve damage results in:
- Paralysis of the trunk and legs (also known as paraplegia)
- Need for a manual wheelchair
- Can learn to drive a modified car
- Can stand in a standing frame, while others may walk with braces
Lumbar and Sacral Nerves
At the very bottom of the backbone, in the hip area, the spinal cord is responsible for bowel and bladder control as well as some walking function. Injury to this section can mean:
- Some loss of function in the hips and legs
- Little or no voluntary control of bowel or bladder, but can manage on their own with special equipment
- Depending on strength in the legs, may need a wheelchair and may also walk with braces
The Best Outcomes Require the Best Medical Care
The best-case scenarios for recovery from damage to any one of these sections of the spinal cord require quality medical attention and ongoing therapy. If your spinal cord injury occurred in a car crash caused by a negligent driver, we can help you win a recovery that will put you on the path to the best-case outcome. Contact us now with questions. We are here to help.