What Is Spinal Cord Disorder?

Spinal cord disorders are conditions that cause damage and deterioration to the spinal cord. These conditions may include:

  • Tumors
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Herniated discs
  • Abscess
  • Hematoma
  • Vertebral fractures
  • Degenerative disc disease

The spinal cord is a tubelike structure that consists of a bundle of nerves that extends from the base of the brain and down the back. The spinal cord carries messages from the brain to the rest of the body. The spinal cord is located within the vertebrae (the backbone). The spinal cord is divided into four areas, any of which can be affected by spinal cord disorders. These areas include:

  • Cervical (neck)
  • Lumbar (upper back region)
  • Thoracic (lower back region)
  • Sacral (pelvis)

Spinal nerves connect to specific areas of the body through spaces in the vertebrae. Spinal nerves have two nerve roots:

  • Motor Root:Carries signals from the spinal cord to the muscles to stimulate movement.
  • Sensory Root: Carries sensory information that relays sensations such as touch, pain, and temperature from the body to the spinal cord.

The sensory roots relay messages to different areas of the skin’s surface, called dermatomes. The loss of sensation in any particular dermatome can indicate a spinal cord disorder and allows doctors to locate the specific area where the spinal cord may be damaged.

Symptoms of a Spinal Cord Disorder

  • Weakness or paralysis of limbs
  • Loss of sensation
  • Changes in reflexes
  • Loss of urinary or bowel control
  • Uncontrolled muscle spasms
  • Back pain

Causes of a Spinal Cord Disorder

Spinal cord disorders can originate from either outside or inside the spinal cord. Damage from the outside of the cord is caused by compression of the spinal cord or injury. The spinal cord may be compressed due to a bone fracture, spinal degeneration, or abnormalities, such as a hematoma, tumor or herniated disk.

Damage from inside the spinal cord can be caused by a number of disorders, such as:

  • Fluid-filled cavities
  • Blockage of blood supply
  • Vitamin deficiency
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Syphilis

Diagnosis of Spinal Cord Disorder

A careful physical exam and a review of medical history is the first step in diagnosing a spinal cord disorder.

Other diagnostic tests your doctor may recommend include:

  • X-rays to check for fractures or tumors
  • Spine MRI orSpine CT scan to show areas of pressure on the spinal canal.
  • Myelography to determine location and presence of abnormalities of the spinal cord.
  • Electromyogram to determine the exact nerve root that is involved.

Treating Spinal Cord Disorders

Treatment for spinal cord disorders depends on the location and severity of the condition. For some, the causes may be irreversible, but treatment at the direction of your health care team will help prevent further complications.

Treatment for spinal cord disorders may include:

  • Physical or occupational therapy
  • Activity modification
  • Surgery when necessary
  • The use of medications to help control issues such as:
    • Bowel and bladder dysfunctions
    • Pain
    • Muscle spasticity
    • Blood pressure
    • Other health issues

Follow up care with a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist who can assist and oversee a long-term rehab therapy plan.

Penn Programs & Services for Spinal Cord Disorder

person grabbing their back in pain
Penn Spine Center

The Penn Spine Center offers diagnosis, treatment and management for chronic and acute spine conditions, ranging from the most common to the most complex.

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Christopher's Story

Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease

As the pain increased, Chris was concerned an end to his active lifestyle was near. Yet, after lumbar discectomy surgery, he's back to doing what he loves.

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