The spinal cord is one of the most critical structures in the body, playing a key role in our ability to be active and mobile. When healthy, most movements feel seamless. Tasks like walking and standing up are all but second nature. But when injured, even the most simple motion becomes laborious or even impossible. However, back pain is so common that more than 80% of adults will experience significant back or neck pain at some point in their lives.
If you’re dealing with back pain or have suffered a recent injury, physicians in New York are available to help you find relief. Learn more about the spine, symptoms, and treatment methods.
Cervical Spine Anatomy
The cervical spine consists of seven vertebrae in the neck, which work together to support the skull and give structure to the neck itself. These seven vertebrae are the smallest of the spinal column, yet are incredibly strong and responsible for connecting the skull to the spine. They are directly attached to the thoracic spine, which begins at the shoulders and runs through the rib cage.
Each of these doughnut-shaped vertebrae is supported by our intervertebral discs which are made of fibrocartilage. These discs are strong and flexible, allowing them to act as shock-absorbing cushions for all activities that require a moderate amount of physical impact.
They’re also the tissue that holds together the upper and lower vertebrae, making them critical to our spine’s ability to move as one. Because of this, it’s crucial that we take precautions to protect our necks and backs.
Most Common Causes of Cervical Spine Injuries
Cervical spine injuries are among some of the most severe injuries seen in patients, often causing a partial or even permanent loss of movement and function to the body. These types of injuries often result in quadriplegia, meaning the person is unable to voluntarily move the upper and lower parts of their body. Paralysis stemming from this portion of the spine generally affects the patient from the shoulders down.
There are a number of ways the cervical spine can become injured, but some of the most common instances involve either sports or driving. Car accidents alone are responsible for over 800,000 reported cases of neck injuries in the U.S. with varying levels of severity depending on the type of crash.
The most common injury to the neck in these cases is whiplash resulting from low-speed rear-end crashes. Contact sports like football, rugby, and soccer can lead to a range of injuries as well, from something as simple as a muscle strain to something more life-threatening, like a neck fracture. The latter is more severe depending on its exact placement with some cases leading to paralysis or even a loss of neurological functions.
Yet, while these injuries are fairly common across the country, the amount of fatal cases has decreased over the last 30+ years. This is partially due to things like growing awareness and rule changes (see here for how the NFL addressed one of its most dangerous plays), but it is even more impacted by the growth of protective equipment and vehicle safety mechanisms. Increased studies around helmets have led to new designs that do a better job of protecting the head and neck. Likewise, car manufacturers continue to test their vehicles rigorously for driver and passenger safety – some cars built in the last few years are even equipped with technology that allows a vehicle to detect oncoming traffic without the need of human assistance.
Accidents will happen. That’s why it’s imperative to know the proper steps to take if you see someone with a significant neck injury.
Cervical Spine Injury Symptoms
Any sudden extreme twist or blow to the neck area can cause injuries like a neck fracture, nerve damage, disc injury, or ligament damage to name a few. And because there are so many variables involved with these types of injuries, it’s important to keep the person immobile until proper medical personnel arrive on the scene. Keeping the spine stable in these circumstances helps to avoid further damage and can lead to a higher recovery rate. Being able to recognize a spinal cord injury, especially one around the neck, can be critical in making sure the individual gets the right care.
When trying to identify if someone has a cervical spine injury, you should look for the following signs and symptoms:
· Neck stiffness
· Difficulty breathing
· An oddly positioned neck or back
· Pain in and around the neck (severe or not)
· Muscle weakness
· Loss of bladder or bowel control
· Numbness or loss of feeling in the patient’s hands, fingers, feet, and toes
Cervical Spine Injury Treatment
Treatment for any spinal injury begins at the site of the accident when the paramedics arrive on the scene. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, there’s no way to reverse damage that’s been done to the spinal cord.
Upon arriving at the emergency room, doctors will put the primary focus on things like the:
· Patient's ability to breathe
· Immobilizing of the body/spine
· Avoidance of any further complications that can arise (severe blood clots, urine/bowel retention, etc.)
For now, most treatment involves preventing further injury and enhancing the quality of life for those affected by these incidents. This means working with the patient to make activities in their daily lives more accessible. In some cases, it can also mean working with new treatment technologies that have a chance to give the patient more control and potential gains to their mobility. Researchers and physicians are constantly studying more experimental treatment methods, including prosthetics, robotic aids, electrical stimulation devices, and more.
In many cases, however, patients will go through one to two years of rehabilitation following these types of injuries. Both physical and occupational therapists are often brought in to help the patient as they learn to cope and adapt to their new situation. These therapists will be able to advise the patient on lifestyle changes and new equipment they might be using as well as assisting in the redevelopment of fine motor skills and maintenance habits.
See Our Orthopaedic Spine Specialists
If you or a loved one has a cervical spine injury, you’re going to want them to have a team around them that cares as much as you do. That team can be found here at the Rothman Institute, with licensed physicians and surgeons all across New York and New Jersey, in cities like Manhattan, Harrison, Tarrytown, Paramus, Montvale and Rutherford.
Our nationally recognized orthopaedic spine specialists are here to help in any way they can, providing expertise and a sturdy hand whenever necessary. Call us today at 1-888-636-7840 or make an appointment with one of our specialists here at the Rothman Orthopaedic Institute.