Spinal Cord Injury

  • Medical Author:
    Jason C. Eck, DO, MS

    Dr. Eck received a Bachelor of Science degree from the Catholic University of America in Biomedical Engineering, followed by a Master of Science degree in Biomedical Engineering from Marquette University. Following this he worked as a research engineer conducting spine biomechanics research. He then attended medical school at University of Health Sciences. He is board eligible in orthopaedic surgery.

  • Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD
    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

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How is a spinal cord injury diagnosed?

The first step in diagnosing a spinal cord injury is a medical history and physical examination. The patient's  physician will obtain a medical history asking questions about the details surrounding the time of the injury. The amount of time since the injury is important because spinal cord injury is a medical emergency. The quicker the patient obtains treatment, the better the chances for recovery. Other details of the medical history could include details of any prior neck or back injuries or surgeries, the presence of pain in the neck or back, any weakness in the arms or legs, loss of bowel or bladder control, loss of sensation in the arms or legs, and other previous medical conditions.

The physical examination will include testing to see if sensation to touch is intact in the arms and legs as well as testing muscle strength and reflexes in the arms and legs. The patient may be kept in a cervical collar or on a backboard to immobilize them until the physician determines whether or not the patient has a spinal cord injury.

The next step is often x-rays of the neck or back. These can help identify a fracture or dislocation of the vertebrae. These may or may not be present with a spinal cord injury. It is possible to have a spinal cord injury without an injury to the vertebrae. X-rays can also help identify a tumor or infection or severe arthritis that could cause spinal cord injury.

A computed tomography (CT) scan is a more advanced imaging test that can give the physician a better view of the vertebrae. CT can identify some injuries to the vertebrae not seen on the plain x-rays. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan is another more advanced imaging study that can identify a spinal cord injury. The MRI is better at evaluating the soft tissues including the ligaments, intervertebral discs, nerves and spinal cord. The MRI scan also can show evidence of injury within the spinal cord.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/4/2015
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