Secured by 31 butterfly-shaped vertebrae, the spinal cord is a complex structure that can be affected by many different types of injuries. Such injuries are often classified as contusions or compressions, broad terms that can be used to describe an assortment of issues with the spinal cord. There are important differences to understand with each of these classifications since treatments and likely outcomes are largely based on how the spinal cord was injured.
What Is a Spinal Contusion?
Usually the result of some type of trauma, a spinal contusion occurs when the spinal cord is bruised. This type of injury may cause blood vessels to bleed near the injured area and result in swelling or inflammation. A contusion is more likely to be caused by something sudden such as a sports-related injury or a slip and fall type of injury that puts a lot of pressure directly on the spinal cord. Symptoms related to a contusion could include:
- Acute pain
- Pain associated with movement
- Visible swelling or redness in the area where the impact occurred
- Limited or decreased range of motion
- Difficulty with balance or walking
What Is a Spinal Compression?
A spinal compression does not involve direct trauma to the spinal cord itself. It results when pressure is placed on the spinal cord from another nearby source. Possible causes include clotted or swollen blood vessels (hematoma) and gradual wear and tear affecting the bones of the spine (osteoarthritis). A compression can also result from sudden trauma, abnormal spine alignment (scoliosis), infection, and some bone diseases. Symptoms experienced may include:
- Pain and/or stiffness in the neck or back
- Burning sensations extending to the arms, thighs, or legs
- Reduced sensation in the feet
- Numbness or weakness in the legs or arms
Diagnosis of Contusions and Compressions
Spinal contusions and compressions can both cause serious, severe, and sometimes permanent damage to the spinal cord itself or neural pathways. Symptoms can be similar with contusions and compressions, so it’s best to have a spine specialist make an accurate diagnosis. Compressions are usually more difficult to diagnose because many other factors can contribute to this type of injury, as can related conditions like disc degeneration and arthritis. Diagnosis of either a contusion or compression often involves:
- A physical exam and review of symptoms
- Image tests (CT scans, X-rays, MRIs)
- An electromyography to test muscle activity, nerve conduction studies, or other specialized tests
What Are the Treatment Options?
Treatment for a contusion or compression will depend on the symptoms experienced and the extent of the injury. Some patients may respond well to rest and the application of heat and ice to help tissues heal, while others recover better with physical therapy and exercises to strengthen spine-supporting muscles.
Regardless of whether your spine injury is due to a contusion or a compression, symptoms that are sharp and sudden or persistent, severe, and potentially life-threatening (e.g. loss of bladder control or feeling in the lower extremities) shouldn’t be ignored, especially when direct injuries to the spinal cord are involved because of an accident or hard fall. Even with a mild compression, any pain that’s getting progressively worse or not going away with a few days of rest is reason enough to see your doctor or a spine surgeon. Santa Monica residents can contact Dr. Hyun Bae at The Spine Institute for a diagnosis and suggestions for treatment.
At The Spine Institute Center for Spinal Restoration, we specialize in a wide array of fusion and non-fusion procedures, from artificial disc replacement to lumbar laminectomy. Santa Monica patients can call our office today at 310-828-7757 to schedule an in-person evaluation.