What is Spinal Contusion?

The spinal cord connects the brain with the rest of the body and helps controls our movement, monitors sensations and delivers vital autonomic functions to facilitate things such as keeping our heart beating, maintaining healthy digestion and breathing.

Damage to the spinal cord can have catastrophic consequences. In the most severe cases, an injury cuts the connection your brain has to the rest of the body and results in partial or complete paralysis.

One of the most common injuries, especially among people who are involved in car accidents, is known as a spinal contusion.

What is a spinal contusion?

Spinal contusion sports injury

Spinal contusions can be caused by high impact contact in sport

Bruising or compression can occur anywhere along the spine where movement is possible. A violent motion from a severe impact can, for example, snap the neck back and cause a contusion. When this happens there is swelling and blood capillaries will break. This causes nerves in the spinal cord to become ‘pinched’ or compressed, thus reducing their efficacy in transmitting information to and from the brain.

We see spinal contusions as a result of high impact car accidents but also in the sporting arena, particularly in contact sports. There have been a few high profile injuries in recent times, including one involving inside linebacker Ryan Shazier in an NFL game.

The severe head collision that lead to Shazier’s injury may have been more serious had he not got immediate medical attention. Even so, motor function and sensation below the neck where the damage occurred was slow in returning and a year later the footballer had still not fully recovered.

The simple fact is that nerves in the spinal cord do not regenerate like other parts of the body where bruising and compressions can occur. That means a serious spinal contusion has the real potential to cause long-lasting effects and even paralysis. Time is of the essence when it comes to recovery and fast diagnosis and appropriate treatment play a big role in the eventual outcome.

Spinal contusion symptoms

Any serious damage to the area of the spine will cause recognisable symptoms and it’s important that the individual is checked out immediately. A lot will depend on where the spinal contusion happens on the spine and which parts of the body are affected.

Spinal contusion symptoms could include:

  • A sudden ‘spinal shock’ which is the sudden loss of sensation or motor movement below the area where the contusion has occurred
  • There can be difficulty breathing and evidence of muscle spasticity, where the muscles are contracting causing stiffness and tightness
  • There may be cognitive impairment with patients unable to concentrate, problems with memory or motor issues with controlling speech
  • There could be problems with blood pressure and heart rate
  • Patients may lose bladder or bowel control

With any spinal contusion, it may be difficult to separate what appears to be bruising with what may actually be permanent damage to the spinal cord. This often means medical professionals have to wait until the bruising has gone down before a full assessment of the impact can be made.

Spinal contusion recovery time

Spinal contusion recovery

Spinal contusion healing time will depend on the severity and the placement of the injury. Minor injuries may mean a few hours or days with numbness in the extremities. More serious compressions could lead to partial or full paralysis.

Shazier’s case above is a good example of how long it can take to recover from a spinal contusion. Treatment can involve emergency surgery to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord and drain blood that has collected because of damaged blood vessels. Corticosteroids may also be used to reduce swelling.

A greater proportion of spinal contusions involve the neck which means that symptoms often affect the whole body. These contusions are caused by large impacts such as during a contact sport or traffic accident where the head is whipped back and forth dangerously quickly.

For major spinal contusions, the first year of recovery is obviously the most difficult and challenging. The patient may have an endpoint where they are fully recovered or will have to come to terms with some permanent effect which leaves them with a disability. Progress can be slow and the impact on mental health may also be an issue.

Summary

A spinal contusion is one of the more common injuries of the spinal cord. Severity can vary depending on the size of the impact and the damage caused but it is most often seen in contact sports and vehicle accidents.

Symptoms include loss of motor function and sensation below the level of the injury and recovery can take months if not years. That recovery could depend on the speed of treatment and it’s very important to get medical attention and a proper diagnosis as soon as any spinal injury is suspected.