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Dissecting a Spinal Cord Injury: May 10, 2013

It’s human instinct to protect our spine- because it houses the nerve center that controls much of our movement.

“The spinal cord is well protected by nature. It runs encased in a cave of bone. And that’s the way nature made us to protect that. Unfortunately bones can break and when those bones break sometimes those shards of bone jam into the spinal cord, causing damage,” says Dr. Dean Lin, neurosurgeon with Lee Memorial Health System.

Suspected spine injuries are treated as trauma cases. With every effort made to keep the patient still until they reach the hospital.

“When a patient comes into the emergency room with a suspected spinal cord injury one of the first diagnostic tests done is a CT scan and x-ray to look if any bones are broken. If the clinical presentation is a spinal cord injury, that person is usually rushed emergently to the MRI machine because the MRI is better at looking at soft tissue,” says Dr. Lin.

The upper of cervical spine is the common sticking point. Usually a compression injury; after being ejected from a vehicle, diving headfirst into shallow water or a thrusting sports impact. Worst-case scenarios end in permanent paralysis.

“There are two kinds of spinal cord injuries. One is a complete spinal cord injury where essentially the spinal cord might as well be severed- and you have no function, no motive strength, no sensory function. And you have what’s called an incomplete spinal cord injury, where you do have preservation of some of the motor, sensory or sphincter function,” says Dr. Lin.

Trauma surgeons often stabilize the spine with rods and screws to give it space to decompress.

“The problem with nerve tissue like spinal cord and brain- that heals very, very slowly. And that’s why I tell people we won’t know for possibly up to a year how much better you’re going to get,” says Dr. Lin.

Time and space- two keys in healing an injured spinal cord.