Spinal cord stroke

Spinal Cord Stroke: What is it and How is it Caused?

There are numerous ways in which the spine can be damaged. The symptoms and prognosis of any spinal cord issue will largely depend on the cause of the issue, where it is located and the extent of the damage.

Here we take a closer look at spinal cord stroke, its symptoms and how it can be treated.

What is a Spinal Stroke?

Spinal strokes are much less common than strokes that affect the brain. Just like any other part of the body, however, the spinal cord relies on a good supply of blood and nutrients. When this sustenance is cut off, for whatever reason, it has the potential to cause a spinal stroke.

  • The vast majority of spinal strokes occur when the supply feeding an area of the spine is blocked, usually because of a blood clot. This is known as an ischemic spinal stroke.
  • Though it is much rarer, damage can also be caused by an artery bleeding and this is called a hemorrhagic spinal stroke.

If the nerves cannot get enough nutrients, it results in the impairment of their function to and from and the brain. A severe stroke can damage the affected area irreparably, leaving someone permanently paralyzed.

What Can Cause a Spinal Stroke?

As we get older, our blood vessels narrow and clots can form. Sometimes this is a natural consequence of the ageing process, but there are certain factors that may also increase the likelihood of spinal cord ischemia.

These include:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • High blood pressure and/or high cholesterol
  • Smoking and/or excessive drinking
  • Lack of exercise
  • Heart disease
  • A history of heart disease in the family

In most cases, a spinal cord stroke occurs if a blood clot blocks an artery feeding the spine directly. This is more likely to happen if the artery has also narrowed because of plaque. If blood pressure is high, this can also contribute to the artery bursting and the necessary nutrients not getting to the spinal cord.

Spinal cord infarction may also occur because of conditions such as vascular damage to the spine, injury which causes the arteries to be damaged or with more specific illnesses such as cauda equine syndrome.

Spinal Stroke Symptoms

As with most illnesses, injuries or trauma where the spinal cord is affected, the location of the issue is an important factor. In addition, some symptoms may appear almost immediately the spinal stroke occurs but others can come on later.

An individual experiencing a spinal stroke might experience a number of symptoms, including:

  • Muscle or limb weakness
  • Sudden pain in the back or neck
  • A sensation of tightness around the chest
  • Numbness or tingling in limbs
  • Either partial or full paralysis in parts of the body associated with the injury location
  • Loss of sensation
  • Bowel and bladder incontinence

Spinal Stroke Diagnosis

Spinal cord stroke MRI scan image
An MRI scan can help diagnose a spinal cord stroke

Diagnosing spinal stroke can be a complicated process because the associated symptoms are similar to those that may be present as a result of other issues, such as a physical injury to the spine.

The main test for a spinal stroke, however, is to have an MRI scan which produces a detailed image of the spine and shows where the blood supply has been blocked or if there is a bleed.

Treatment of Spinal Stroke

Treatment of a spinal stroke will depend largely on the cause.

  • An ischemic spinal stroke, for example, is initially treated with blood-thinning medication such as anticoagulant and antiplatelet drugs like aspirin and warfarin.
  • If the spinal stroke is due to high blood pressure or high cholesterol, taking medication to alleviate can help ease symptoms and prevent a stroke.
  • A spinal stroke often leaves the individual with other issues to overcome such as spasticity and paralysis. This is usually helped through physical therapy but can take time to overcome.
  • In a small number of cases, the spinal stroke is due to a tumor and this will have to be removed surgically.

Spinal Stroke Prognosis

In the short term, an individual may have problems with bowel and bladder management following a spinal stroke. Physiotherapy can be used to help with walking difficulties that arise as a result of the stroke. In addition, the individual might have to cope with challenges such as muscle and joint pain, sexual dysfunction and spasticity as well emotional issues such as depression.

However, the general long term outlook is fairly good for spinal stroke patients, but much depends on where it occurs, the severity and how quickly treatment is obtained.

In many cases, a full recovery is possible with the right medical support.