If you’ve been diagnosed with spinal cord shock following a back injury, you may be curious about the recovery process. Because of the spine’s complex nature, it can be difficult to know whether paralysis, sensory loss, and other symptoms are temporary or permanent. Thankfully, many people go on to recover—partially or fully—from spinal cord shock. Read more about the condition and about recuperation in this guide.
All About the Spinal Cord
Simply put, the nerves in your body are like a railway network: your brain is the equivalent of Grand Central Station and your spinal cord is the main line. Millions of vital nerve fibers form the spinal cord, which is protected inside your spinal column. The spinal cord, which is cushioned by a layer of cerebral fluid, travels through the middle of each vertebra. Other nerves emerge from it at various places on your spinal column. They connect with every part of your body except the head and the face.
Together, your spinal cord and its peripheral nerves form the central nervous system. Information—in the form of electrical impulses—travels back and forth through the nervous system, allowing your brain to communicate with your body.
Symptoms of Spinal Shock
Normally, electrical impulses move freely through your nervous system. Sometimes, however, the spinal cord is compressed or damaged as the result of a spinal injury, and it responds to that injury by swelling up. When this happens, impulses no longer travel through damaged areas properly, if at all. You may experience some or all of the following spinal shock symptoms as a result:
- Loss of sensation in your arms or legs
- Loss of movement in affected limbs
- Exaggerated reflexes
- Muscle spasms
- Tingling in your hands, fingers, feet, or toes
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Back pain
- An uncomfortable stinging sensation in your spine
- Breathing difficulties
- Pressure in your back or head
- Difficult balancing
- Weakness, incoordination, or paralysis
- Problems with sexual function
Symptoms like the ones listed above often occur within minutes of the injury. However, they can also manifest gradually over the course of a few hours.
Spinal Injury Location
A person’s specific symptoms depend on the location of the acute spinal cord injury. Peripheral nerves emerge from the spinal column at different places and connect with different parts of the body. Cervical nerves, which extend from the vertebrae in your neck, serve your arms, your upper trunk, and your neck. Thoracic (T) nerves, which are connected to your spinal cord in the upper back region, supply your mid abdomen and lower trunk. Lumbar (L) and sacral (S) nerves come from your lower back and relay impulses to the legs and to the organs in the lower part of your abdomen. If your T4 vertebra is injured, for example, all the nerves attached to the spinal cord below that point—and any limbs and organs they serve—are affected.
Potential Causes of Spinal Shock
Spinal injury can occur as the result of many things—not just dramatic falls. Motor vehicle and industrial accidents account for a significant proportion of spinal injuries. Sports injuries, assaults, and genetic conditions can also produce spinal cord damage. For people affected by arthritis, osteoporosis, or similar conditions, a minor fall can have major consequences.
Emergency Steps for Suspected Spinal Injuries
It is important not to move someone with suspected spinal shock syndrome without professional assistance. Doing so could make the injury worse. Instead, call 911 immediately and try to encourage the injured person to hold as still as possible. You can support the head, neck, or back with towels or your hands until paramedics arrive. Emergency responders routinely brace and immobilize individuals with possible spine injuries before they transport them to hospital.
Types of Spinal Shock
There are two different kinds of spinal cord shock: partial shock and complete shock. A patient’s symptoms depend on the location and severity of the injuries. Diagnosis of either type is based on the following criteria:
- Partial shock: You still have some movement in the parts of your body below your spinal injury and can still feel hot, cold, and other sensations to a degree.
- Complete shock: You can’t move the parts of your body below the spinal injury and have lost almost all—if not all—sensation in those areas.
There are many degrees of both partial and complete shock, so it’s important to be seen by a doctor as soon as possible. Proper diagnosis of spinal injury—and thorough aftercare—is essential to optimal recovery.
Spinal Shock and Paralysis
Spinal cord shock itself is not enough to diagnose permanent paralysis: it is simply the spine’s reaction to damage. With that in mind, it is important to remember that spinal shock is a transient state. Most of the time, permanent paralysis cannot be determined until the spinal cord has recovered from shock. Quite often, patients’ conditions improve significantly, even if they initially appear paralyzed. As you recover, the true extent of your spinal cord injury will emerge—and it may not be as serious as you think. Regular appointments with your doctor will help you keep track of your own healing.
Other Types of Shock
Spinal cord shock should not be confused with neurogenic shock or with circulatory shock, both of which are entirely different medical conditions. A completely different process occurs in spinal shock vs. neurogenic shock. The neurogenic variety sometimes occurs at the same time as spinal cord shock, however. It manifests as the result of severe central nervous system damage—a brain injury, for example—and results in hypotension. Symptoms include a very slow heartbeat (bradycardia) and a sudden decrease in blood pressure. The symptoms of circulatory shock, on the other hand, include a rapid, weak pulse (tachycardia), cool, clammy skin, and fast, shallow breathing. Either of these two types of shock are serious conditions and both require prompt medical attention.
Tips for an Optimal Recovery
Spinal cord injuries are very diverse and depend on a wide variety of factors, so every person’s recovery process is different. With that said, there are certain elements that are similar. Depending on the severity of your injury, you may to change your diet and your bathroom techniques to help your body absorb optimal nutrients. Your physical rehabilitation team will help you and will guide you as you recuperate.