Overview of Spinal Cord Disorders
Your spine is your backbone. It's actually a long line of 24 bones called vertebrae plus your tailbone (sacrum). The vertebrae start below your skull and go all the way down to your pelvis. The vertebrae bear most of your body's weight.
There are small discs of cartilage between each vertebra. The cartilage is a flexible, rubbery material that acts like a cushion between the vertebrae and allows your spine to bend.
There is a hole through each vertebra. The holes line up to make a tunnel called the spinal canal that runs the length of your spine. Your spinal cord lies inside the spinal canal, which protects your spinal cord from harm.
The spine is divided into 4 sections from top to bottom. Each section is referred to by a letter.
Within each section of the spine, the vertebrae are numbered beginning at the top. When doctors talk about a problem in your spine, they name the letter and number of the vertebrae involved. For example, they may say "L5" if you have a problem in the 5th lumbar vertebra.
How the Spine Is Organized
Your spinal cord is the thick bundle of nerves that runs from your brain down the inside of your spine (spinal canal). The spinal cord is like an electric cable that carries signals back and forth between your brain and body.
The spinal cord is very delicate, which is why it's protected inside the spinal canal.
Spinal nerves are medium-sized nerves that connect your spinal cord to smaller nerves that travel to different parts of your body.
There are 31 pairs of spinal nerves that enter and exit the spinal cord in the spaces between your vertebrae. Each spinal nerve runs from a specific part of the spinal cord to a specific area of your body. So, for example, if you touch a specific spot on your skin, you feel it because of the message sent to your brain by one specific spinal nerve.
Your spine can be injured from motor vehicle crashes, falls, assaults, and sports injuries. An injury can break your spine bones (spinal fracture) or make them slip out of place (dislocation). The ligaments that hold your spine bones together can tear. Your vertebral discs can rupture.
Spine disorders don't have to come from injury. Your spine bones sometimes become infected (osteomyelitis). Sometimes cancer spreads to the spine bones.
Sometimes disorders of the spine also affect your spinal cord.
Some spinal cord disorders are caused by an injury that hurts the spinal cord:
Some spinal cord disorders are caused by diseases that affect the spinal cord, such as:
When the spinal cord is damaged, the nerves that pass across the damaged area don't work right. In general, a spinal cord disorder causes:
Because the nerves that leave your spinal cord before they get to the damaged area are all right, your symptoms depend on where the spinal cord is damaged. For example, if the spinal cord is damaged in your lower back, you may lose movement and sensation in your legs but still be able to use your arms. But if the spinal cord is damaged in your neck, both your arms and legs may be affected. If the spinal cord is damaged high in your neck, you may not be able to breathe. You can lose control of your bladder and bowels and lose sexual function regardless of where your spinal cord is damaged.
If you have damage to your spine bones, ligaments, disks, or spinal nerves, you usually have pain in your neck or back.
You should go to the emergency room right away if you have these symptoms:
At first, when you're paralyzed, your muscles are limp. After you've been paralyzed for a while, your muscles tighten up because they're not being used. Your limbs may become so stiff that no one can bend them.
If you are paralyzed or unable to get out of bed, you're at risk of developing other conditions including
Spinal cord disorders can also lead to depression and loss of self-esteem.
Doctors treat the cause of the spinal cord disorder, if they can.
Some people can improve with:
Talking to a counselor can help if you're struggling to cope with your spinal cord disorder.