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How serious is spinal cord compression?

Spinal cord compression occurs when a mass such as a tumour or bone fragment puts pressure on the spinal cord. The spinal cord has nerves which are responsible for sending signals or messages back and forth from the brain to the rest of the body. Compression in the spinal cord can occur anywhere along the neck to the lower spine. The seriousness of spinal cord compression depends on the severity of the condition and the general health of the patient. However, typically spinal cord compression can affect function, comfort and the overall quality of life, and hence, must be treated with adequate medical care.

Symptoms of Spinal Cord Compression

Symptoms of spinal cord compression may vary from person-to-person, depending on how severe the compression is and which area of the spinal cord is the most affected. That said, the most common symptom of spinal cord compression is stiffness or pain in the back or the neck. Also, the patient can feel numbness or weakness in the legs, hands and arms.

For patients affected by the compression in the lumbar area, a condition known as cauda equine can develop with the following symptoms:

  • Extreme pain or weakness in the legs
  • Loss of bowel and bladder control
  • Extreme numbness in the back of the legs and inner thighs

Moreover, spinal cord compression also impacts motor skills and coordination.

Causes of Spinal Cord Compression

There is no definitive cause for spinal cord compression; in some patients, the compression can occur suddenly without any prior symptoms, however for others, the symptoms may develop over time and cause compression. Some common causes of spinal cord compression include:

  • A particular type of degenerative diseases such as arthritis
  • Ruptured disk
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Injury to the area around the cord, causing swelling and thereby compression
  • Bleeding disorders along with chiropractic manipulation can cause the development of large clots
  • Bone spurs tend to narrow the spinal canal
  • Cancerous and non-cancerous tumours

Some factors that can increase the risk of a person developing a spinal cord compression include poor lifting techniques, neck or back injury, weak bones, osteoarthritis and others.

Diagnosis of Spinal Cord Compression

The doctors will assess the patient’s medical history and conduct several exams to including an X-ray of the spine and a CT scan or an MRI test to know the cause and place of compression. In some cases, the doctor can also conduct a myelogram, which will involve injecting a special dye in the spinal cord to get better pictures through the CT scan.

Treatment of Spinal Cord Compression

Spinal cord compression can become a severe condition if it is not treated in time and well. Moreover, if the reason for the compression is a cancerous tumour, it can cause serious implications. That said, treatment of spinal cord compression depends entirely on the severity of the condition, the place of compression and the general health of the patient.

To help ease the symptoms such as stiffness and back pain, the doctor might recommend reduced physical activity or immobilization. Some treatment plans include:

  • Anti-inflammatory medicines to reduce the swelling and pain
  • Epidural steroid injections in the place of the spinal cord compression
  • Monitored physical therapy and exercises to strengthen the spine, as well as abdominal and leg muscles. Strengthening the muscles and spinal cord will help reduce the symptoms.
  • Home care and remedies such as ice packs, heating pads, etc.
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers to ease pain
  • Alternative treatments include acupuncture and acupressure
  • Other treatments such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy to shrink a cancerous tumour which is causing compression on the spinal cord

In case, these non-invasive and minimally invasive techniques fail to provide any relief to the patient’s condition, other non-conservative treatment such as surgery may be used to treat the condition. The type of surgery depends on the general health of the patient and also the cause of the compression. In general, the surgery involves fusing the vertebrae, removing bone spurs and increasing the space between the vertebrae.

Prevention of Spinal Cord Compression

Preventing spinal cord compression in all cases is not possible since there are multiple causes that could cause the problem. However, some factors can help prevent the problem, such as:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Regular exercising
  • Balanced diet
  • Good posture
  • Reduced pressure on the back
  • Applying proper lifting techniques
  • Avoiding back injuries

The seriousness of spinal cord compression depends on the cause of the compression as well the as the location. Moreover, delayed medical treatment can intensify the problem and even cause more problematic symptoms which would need surgery for treatment. Untreated spinal cord compressions can affect mobility and the general quality of life. Hence, it is always advisable to seek medical consultation if experiencing any symptoms that could potentially indicate a spinal cord compression.

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