Busting common myths about spinal cord injuries, one at a time…
Hundreds of Australians experience a spinal cord injury (SCI) every year – but what does this really mean?
The spinal cord is like a system of telephone wires which conduct messages from the brain, through the nerves, to all parts of the body. When the spinal cord has been damaged, it leads to a loss of function such as mobility or feeling.
For some people, a SCI results in paraplegia (loss of function below the chest), for others it leads to quadriplegia (loss of function below the neck).
Now that we have the facts out of the way, let’s get to the myths!
It’s true that accidents do account for 79% of spinal cord injuries in Australia – mostly caused by motor vehicle accidents (46%) and falls (28%).1 Of those whose spinal cord injury is related to an accident, 84% are men as they are more likely to take bigger risks and choose risky activities.1
But the other 21% of SCIs are caused by a range of non-traumatic causes, like cancer, arthritis, infections, blood clots, and degenerative spinal conditions.1
Here’s some good news: most women who have a SCI will still be able to fall pregnant and give birth.
While 50 – 60% of women will experience amenorrhea (no menstruation) temporarily after the injury, this returns within 6-12 months for most women, leaving no lasting effect on fertility.3
Once a woman with a SCI falls pregnant, depending on her injury she may not be able to feel the baby move in her abdomen. However, as the baby grows, mothers to be can often feel their baby move with their hands or arms, or even see them moving about.
Having a SCI will not have any impact on the baby’s development, and many women have a healthy pregnancy from beginning to end.
Even labour will kick off as usual (as this is controlled by neuro-hormonal factors not neurological ones), however some women may have difficulty knowing when this is beginning. Depending on someone’s injury, labour can instead feel like abdominal discomfort or a back ache. Therefore other signs such as the water breaking may be important, and as the end of the 9 months draws near, extra monitoring may be needed to make sure the mum does not sleep through the labour.
Some women will deliver the baby vaginally, while others might need a little help in the form of forceps or a C-section – a doctor can advise on what is best for both the mother and child.
Every SCI is different and there are many different degrees of injury. It’s hard to predict how someone will be affected, but not all people will need to use a wheelchair, and some people with quadriplegia will even be able to walk with the help of aids.
Generally the degree of disability will depend on where the spinal cord has been damaged. For example, a break near the top of the neck can mean that even breathing is difficult, while those who have an injury in the mid to lower back may be able to walk with a frame or braces, or even independently.2
When most body parts get injured, they’re able to regenerate – but unfortunately this isn’t true for the spinal cord. But while damage can’t be reversed, it can be limited by reducing the swelling that usually happens immediately after the injury.2 That’s why you often see treatment for a SCI begin at the scene of the accident.
Once this inflammation goes down, the person can begin to recover – a process that can start anywhere from 1 week to 6 months after the injury.2
Once in rehabilitation, the focus is usually on building muscle function, regaining fine motor skills, and learning new ways to do daily activities. Sometimes intensive exercise can help to build muscle mass, and also improve blood circulation and sensation.
There’s no doubt it’s a hard road to recovery, but scientists are optimistic that someday there’ll be a way to repair SCIs. And in the mean time, rehab and treatment means that many people lead productive, independent lives after an SCI.
Got any other questions or myths about spinal cord injuries? We’d be happy to look into them for you – just get in touch.