Spinal Shock: Why Your SCI May Not Be As Bad As It Seems

Spinal Shock: Why Your SCI May Not Be As Bad As It Seems

Spinal shock occurs in nearly half of spinal cord injury cases. It’s when you suddenly lose feeling and movement below your level of injury.

Luckily, it’s only temporary and your functions can gradually start to return, depending on the severity of your injury.

What Causes Spinal Shock?

What causes spinal shock following a spinal cord injury?

Injury to any region of the spinal cord can lead to spinal shock.

It usually starts a few hours after a spinal cord injury, but can also show up a couple days later instead.

After a spinal cord injury, various chemical reactions occur that affect your blood pressure. They can cause ischemia (restricted blood flow) and hypoxia (the deprivation of oxygen).

On top of that, the trauma to the spinal cord causes swelling of the injury site. With enough swelling, blood flow can get cut off.

Blood is full of oxygen and essential nutrients that keep your major organ systems going. So when the spinal cord is not receiving enough blood, it cannot function normally and starts to shut down.

This is what leads to impaired sensory and motor functions.

The more severe the trauma to the spinal cord, the more extreme the state of shock will be.

Spinal Shock Symptoms

spinal shock can result in bradycardia and hypotension

Examples of impaired sensory and motor functions include flaccid paralysis and areflexia.

Flaccid paralysis results in limp and weak muscles due to loss of tone.

Areflexia is the absence of reflexes. Our reflexes are extremely important for protection, so be extra cautious of hot surfaces and sharp objects if you lose them.

If a patient has no motor or sensory function following a spinal cord injury, a physician usually checks for a bulbocavernosus reflex. If the anal sphincter does not contract with stimulation, it indicates that spinal shock is present.

Spinal Shock Treatment

spinal shock is temporary and heals on it's own over time

The good thing about spinal shock is that once the swelling in your spinal cord starts to die down, blood flow will start to normalize, and your reflexes will gradually start to return. Healing takes time.

Unlike neurogenic shock, spinal shock is not typically a medical emergency. It just requires a little extra caution and symptoms will usually go away on their own.

Recovery from spinal shock typically demonstrates one extreme of reflexes to the other. This is evident through the 4 phase model.

The first day or so, you’ll experience hyporeflexia or areflexia in which all your reflexes below the injury become weak, if not completely lost.

Slowly reflexes will start to return. The bulbocavernosus reflex is one of the first reflexes to return during spinal shock recovery.

Within a month, you’ll likely demonstrate the extreme opposite of hyporeflexia, which is hyperreflexia. Hyperreflexia is when your reflexes become overresponsive through spastic movements.

Spinal shock usually lasts anywhere between 4 to 12 weeks.

After this period, you’ll have a better gauge of the severity of your spinal cord injury.

That’s a Wrap!

spinal shock recovery takes time and usually goes away on its own

Don’t freak out if you suddenly lose sensation and motor control following your spinal cord injury.

It’s probably not as bad as it seems.

You’re most likely just experiencing spinal shock due to all the inflammatory processes going on inside your spinal cord.

Don’t underestimate your body’s ability to heal itself. With time, swelling will die down and your reflexes can return.