There are a lot of situations that can lead to a spinal cord injury. Sports and especially some extreme sports can put you at a higher risk than the general population of one of these types of potentially catastrophic injuries.
Even sports that aren’t necessarily considered extreme, like skiing and surfing, can come with a high likelihood of getting injured.
With that in mind, the following are things to know about spinal cord injuries in general, but especially if you’re involved in extreme sports.
What’s Considered a Spinal Cord Injury?
A spinal cord injury is damage of any kind to the spine. It’s a severe type of trauma to your body, and it’s very likely that if you sustain this type of injury or someone you love does, it’s going to impact daily life in many ways.
Your spine is a bundle of nerves and tissues that your vertebrae protect.
Your vertebrae are bones stacked on top of each other that go up your spine.
Your spinal cord sends messages from your brain throughout your body and from the body to the brain. We perceive pain and also have movement of our limbs because of spinal cord messages.
When your spinal cord is injured, then the impulses may not travel the way they should. You could have a loss of mobility or sensation between the injury.
How Spinal Cord Injuries Often Occur
A spinal cord injury tends to occur from something violent or unpredictable. Examples may include:
- A violent physical attack, like a gunshot or stabbing
- Diving into shallow water and hitting the bottom
- Car accident trauma
- Falling from heights
- Sport events
- Electrical accidents
- A severe twisting in the middle of the torso
These types of injuries can occur from non-traumatic injuries or illnesses too. For example, cancer, osteoporosis, and multiple sclerosis can lead to spinal cord injuries or damage, as can arthritis and inflammation of the spinal cord.
Whether or not someone who sustains a spinal cord injury will control and move their limbs after the damage depends on where it occurred and the severity.
The lowest part of the spine considered normal is the neurological level of the injury. The injury severity is sometimes called completeness.
It’s classified as complete or incomplete. If there’s no feeling or movement control below the injury, it’s referred to as complete. If there’s some motor or sensory function below an affected area, it’s known as incomplete.
Symptoms of a spinal cord injury can include:
- Loss of movement
- Altered sensation including an inability to feel cold, heat, or touch
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Spasms or exaggerated reflexes
- Changes in sexual function
- Pain or stinging caused by nerve damage
- Problems breathing, clearing secretions from the lungs, or coughing
Even before someone is admitted to the hospital with a spinal cord injury, treatment begins.
If someone experiences an injury in an emergency, medical services professionals will start to immobilize their spine at the scene of that accident. Then, once the person reaches the emergency department, immobilization continues while the immediately life-threatening conditions are dealt with.
If someone has a spinal cord injury, they’re usually admitted to the intensive care unit.
If there are injuries of the cervical spine, traction may be a way to align the spine.
They will also typically receive other types of standard ICU care during that time, such as ensuring stable blood pressure maintained and monitoring lung function.
If the spinal cord seems to be compressed by a lesion, herniated disc, or blood clot, a surgeon might take them into the operating room right away.
How someone recovers depends on the severity of their injury. Most people with a complete spinal cord injury aren’t likely to get function back below the level of the damage. If there is some improvement, it is usually apparent within a few days after the injury.
For people with incomplete injuries, they may have some improvement over time, but it varies depending on the type of injury. A full recovery may not be possible, but rehabilitation and supportive care can help the person make progress.
If you’re involved in sports, there are a few things you can do to reduce your risk of a spinal cord injury.
You should wear all the suggested safety equipment and make sure that it fits well. Replace it as needed. Know all the rules of the sports you’re playing, and be aware of the complete risk level of any activity you’re participating in.