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Spinal Column versus Spinal Cord Injuries

Spinal Column versus Spinal Cord InjuriesWhen discussing the human back, people sometimes use the terms “spinal column” and “spinal cord” interchangeably. However, as experienced personal injury lawyers know, although those terms are related, they refer to distinct physiological structures, and injuries to them differ widely.

The purpose of this blog post is to explain the difference between the spinal column and the spinal cord.

What They Are and What They Do

Let’s start with an overview of what these two related, but distinct, parts of the human body are, and what they do.

The Spinal Column

Also called the vertebral column, the spinal column houses the spinal cord and surrounding fluid. It extends from the base of the skull to the tailbone. The structure supports your entire body, and it allows you to bend and twist with ease. The backbone has discs and tendons, and it looks like an S-shaped curve.

In total, the spinal column has 33 bones. Also known as vertebrae, the bones rest on top of each other. Each one belongs to one of the five regions of the spinal column. The five segments are the cervical spine, thoracic spine, lumbar spine, sacral region, and coccyx.

The cervical region is in the neck and has seven vertebrae. The part of the backbone provides structure and gives support for the head. The bones let you shake and rotate your head without risk of injury. The next part of the spinal column is the thoracic region. It makes up the upper back and abdomen and has 12 bones. The thoracic spine holds the rib cage in place.

Below the thoracic is the lumbar region. The lumbar is part of your lower back, and it has five vertebrae. The section takes the stress when you lift heavy objects. The sacral, or sacrum, also has five bones and links the hips to the spine. At the bottom, the coccyx has four fused vertebrae. The coccyx supports the ligaments and muscles in the pelvic region.

Spinal Cord

The spinal cord resides within the spinal canal running through the middle of the spinal column, which protects the cord from damage. The cord runs from the base of the skull down the center of the back. It consists of nerve tissues surrounded by three layers of membranes. In total, 31 pairs of spinal nerves make up the spine.

Similar to the spinal column, the fragile nerves of the spinal cord belong to one of five regions. They are cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral, and coccygeal. The cervical region contains eight nerve pairs, and the thoracic has twelve pairs. The lumbar and sacral both consist of five nerve pairs. Meanwhile, the coccygeal contains one pair of spinal nerves.

The spinal cord plays a vital role in the nervous system, as the passageway for messages from the brain to the body, and vice versa. The spinal cord, among other functions, makes it possible to feel heat, cold, and other sensations. Thanks to the spinal cord, your brain can sense the position and location of your limbs, and tell them to move. Messages sent along the spinal cord control your breathing and the function of your bladder, and regulate your blood pressure and heart rate.

Injuries to the Spinal Column and Spinal Cord

Injuries to the spinal column and spinal cord are often related, but not always. Suffering an injury to either can cause severe difficulty for the injured individual. Generally speaking, however, the overall impact on an individual’s life tends to be greater for a spinal cord injury than a spinal column injury.

Spinal Column Injuries

The structures of the spinal column—principally discs and vertebrae c—get injured through some external physical trauma, like the force of a car accident, a bad fall, or an assault. A penetrating injury, such as a gunshot wound, can also damage the spinal column. Other causes of spinal column injuries include aging, and over-exertion (like lifting heavy objects or engaging in high-impact sports without proper training).

Damage can take various forms. Vertebrae can fracture or splinter. Discs can rupture or become herniated. On their own, these injuries can cause severe, long-lasting pain and immobility. As discussed below, if they also affect the spinal cord, they can also lead to a host of other health problems.

Spinal Cord Injuries

Damage to the spinal column can, in turn, injures the spinal cord. For example, shattered vertebrae may knick or sever the cord, and a bulging disc may put pressure on the cord. The spinal cord can also sustain damage in other ways, such as through swelling from an infectious disease or medical errors made during back surgery.

No matter how it happens, a spinal cord injury results in the partial or total interruption of the flow of messages along the cord. Doctors classify spinal cord injuries as complete, meaning no messages to and from the brain can pass the injury site, and incomplete, meaning that some messages can still get through.

In either case, the disruption of messages typically results in a loss of sensation and function in the body part connected to the spinal cord below the injury.

This can lead to impairments and health complications:

  • Paralysis is perhaps the most well-known consequence of a spinal cord injury. Damage to or pressure on the cord can prevent the brain from directing movement of the limbs. The location of the injury can destroy the ability to feel and move legs, torso, arms, and appendages. The higher on the cord the injury, the more of the body might experience paralysis. In cases of incomplete injuries, individuals may experience weakness in the affected parts of the body, rather than a total loss of motor control.
  • Loss of sensation and control of bodily functions can also result from a spinal cord injury. For example, an injured individual may lose the ability to sense and control bladder function, or may not be able to feel heat or cold on the skin.
  • Disrupted reflexes and autonomic functions can also occur, meaning that the body can no longer perform certain involuntary functions on its own, such as breathing, coughing, or swallowing.
  • Acute and long-term health complications often result from the primary effects of spinal cord injuries. For instance, a loss of sensation to the skin can result in an individual suffering a burn, cut, or open sore, or other dermatological injuries without realizing it. Respiratory and other infections can occur, as can premature organ failure, difficulties controlling body temperature, and fluctuating blood pressure.

Who Is at Risk for a Spinal Column or Spinal Cord Injury?

Anyone can suffer a spinal column or spinal cord injury, however, data show that some populations face higher risks than others.

At-Risk for Spinal Column Injuries

Older adults, on average, have a higher chance of sustaining a spinal column injury, because age weakens and causes wear and tear to discs and vertebrae. Workers in physically demanding jobs that involved repeated heavy lifting, pushing, and bending sideways also face a heightened risk of spinal column injuries.

In addition, anyone who spends regular time in a location that features slip and fall hazards, like workers at marinas or in commercial kitchens, also contend with spinal column injury risks. Genetics can also play a role in the likelihood of a spinal column injury, as can smoking (which weakens spinal column discs).

At-Risk for Spinal Cord Injuries

According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, the average age of a person who suffers a spinal cord injury is 43. However, over half of cases occur among people between 16 and 30 years of age. Adults over 65 also have a higher risk of an injured spinal cord after a fall.

The American Association of Neurological Surgeons has found that around 80 percent of spinal cord injury patients are men. Additionally, men make up a majority of spinal cord injuries related to sports. Given the high percentage of spinal cord injuries that result from auto accidents, people who travel often also face a higher-than-average risk of these injuries.

Injury Treatment

Treatments and recovery prognoses for spinal column injuries and spinal cord also differ.

Spinal Column Injury Treatment

Treatment for spinal column injuries typically involves rest, inactivity, rehabilitation, medication, and (occasionally) surgery. Recovery times are usually measured in weeks to months. For instance, a spinal fracture can take up to 12 weeks to heal.

One common complication of spinal column injury treatment involves patients becoming dependent on habit-forming pain medications. These drugs can mask the pain but do not heal an injury. Some people rely on them instead of following a regimen of rest and physical therapy. In other people, non-drug therapies don’t control the pain. These people risk a potentially unhealthy spiral of drug dependence.

Spinal Cord Injury Treatment

In many cases, a spinal cord injury is permanent, and treatments are only therapeutic or designed to prevent further damage to the cord. Early medical attention can, for example, immobilize the spine and avoid further harm. Some individuals may also undergo surgery to stabilize the spinal cord and remove bone fragments from it.

Rehabilitation is common for patients who still have some function and senses under the injury sight. Physical therapy can strengthen motor skills and muscles, and patients can return to their daily lives. Some treatment options for patients with incomplete spinal cord injuries may also improve the function in the nerves unaffected by the injury.

Researchers consistently search for new technologies and treatments to help with spinal cord injuries. Patients should speak with a doctor to determine the best treatment option.

Seeking Compensation for Injuries to the Spine

Victims of either type of spine-related injury discussed above may have the right to significant financial compensation. The law entitles them to payments for their injuries and losses from anyone whose unreasonably dangerous decisions or actions caused them harm.

With the help of a skilled spinal injury lawyer, individuals living with spinal column or spinal cord injuries may take legal action seeking payment for their:

  • Medical expenses for treating the injury and any secondary health complications, including costs of hospitalization, surgery, rehabilitation, long-term care, and medications. (These costs routinely run into the millions of dollars for victims of spinal cord injuries.)
  • Non-medical expenses necessitated by the spinal injury, such as the cost of modifying living space to accommodate a disability, purchasing and maintaining wheelchairs and other mobility aids, hiring help with everyday tasks, and job retraining.
  • Lost earnings and income owing to the spinal injury, including time missed at work while hospitalized, and future career opportunities lost due to an injury.
  • Pain, suffering, and diminished quality of life resulting from the drastic life changes that spinal column and spinal cord injuries often cause.

To have the best possible chance of receiving this compensation, individuals should always seek to work with an attorney who has years of experience representing people with spine-related injuries. Seasoned attorneys understand how to evaluate an injury, know the terminology and medical science, and know-how to calculate and prove an individual’s future financial needs. This know-how is critical in ensuring that spinal column and spinal cord injury victims receive the maximum compensation available for their situations.

Do Not Wait to Seek Legal Help for a Spine-Related Injury

Spinal Cord Injury Lawyer, Michael Gibson

Spinal column and spinal cord injuries can easily lead to a lifetime of large, unplanned-for costs and challenges. Victims of those injuries need and deserve financial support to help them heal and to adapt to their new normal.

The most reliable way to obtain the compensation you deserve for a spine-related injury is to speak with an experienced spinal injury attorney as soon as possible after you get hurt. Your rights may depend on taking quick legal action.

To learn more, contact a skilled spinal column and spinal cord injury attorney today.

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