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What is Spinal Shock?

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  • Written By: Sandra Koehler
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 December 2016
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Spinal shock is the body’s reaction to some sort of trauma or injury to the spinal cord. This process begins within a few minutes of the injury but can take several hours to present a full-blown scenario. Typically a decrease in movement and sensation will occur below the level of injury.

Due to the injury, swelling begins to occur. This causes a reduction in blood flow leading to a decline of oxygen flow to the area. Blood vessels may also break if the injury is severe enough, which can cause heavy bleeding into the area. The body demonstrates a diminished ability to regulate itself, therefore, the electrical activity in the area decreases causing the changes in movement and sensation.

Spinal shock can also impede the undamaged portion of the spinal cord. General inflammation cuts off the ability of other sections of the spinal cord to communicate with the brain. Depending on the severity of the injury, loss of sensation, reflexes and a total paralysis of the limbs below the area of damage can occur. Other body functions, such as bladder control can also be affected.

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Spinal shock can last from several days to several weeks, depending on the severity of the injury and the expedience of treatment. Symptoms may become progressively worse if untreated. The best chance of recovery comes with treatment within eight hours of injury. Standard management of the inflammation or swelling is to administer steroids. Steroids can reduce further damage that can cause nerve death by controlling the swelling that cuts off the blood and oxygen supply to the area. However, despite treatment, residual or long-standing disability can occur.

In order to properly diagnose spinal shock, x-rays, CT scans and MRI scans are taken to assess the extent of damage. If a spinal injury is suspected, immediate immobilization followed by these tests can decrease the risks of lasting damage. Unstable spinal injuries usually require surgical intervention to regain stability and avoid further injury.

Nerve tissue that is compressed due to the swelling has a high likelihood of complete return function if diagnosed and treated properly. If the nerve is transected, or cut, nerve damage will be permanent. Any dysfunction that continues after six months has a higher incidence of becoming permanent.

Full recovery from spinal shock typically employs the use of physical and occupational therapists, as both gross and fine motor skills may need some fine-tuning. Therapy is used to stretch and strengthen muscles, and to provide the patient with assistive devices such as walker aids or braces to improve general mobility. Strategies to manage dysreflexia or changes in normal reflexes, and neurogenic or nerve pain often associated with spinal shock are also employed in order to regain normal function as quick as possible.

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