What Is Spinal Shock and How Is It Treated?

Category: Spine | Author: Stefano Sinicropi | Date: November 7, 2017

Spinal Shock Stages

Spinal shock is a condition that results in the temporary reduction or the loss of reflexes following a spinal cord injury. Similar to how your body can go into a state of shock after a traumatic experience, your spine can go into shock after a severe injury. Today, we take a closer look at what happens when your spine goes into shock, and how the condition is treated.

Spinal Shock Stages

Spinal shock tends to occur when someone has suffered an injury to their spinal cord. The more severe the injury to the spinal cord, the more severe the symptoms of spinal shock tend to be. Almost all individuals with spinal cord injuries experience some form of spinal shock, but the most extreme symptoms develop when your spinal cord is severed or very swollen.

After a traumatic injury, your spinal cord may enter what’s known as hyporeflexia or areflexia. Hyporeflexia is associated with a significant reduction in reflexes, while areflexia is associated with a temporary loss of reflexes. Spinal shock typically presents itself in different stages, which we’ll talk about below.

  • Stage I – After the injury, spinal nerve cells become less responsive to sensory input, which results in partial or full loss of some spinal cord reflexes.
  • Stage II – Return of some reflexes. In general, the first reflexes to return are the polysynaptic reflexes, which are reflexes that require a signal to travel from a sensory neuron to a motor neuron. Other reflexes that typically return first are the delayed plantar reflex and the bulbocavernosus reflex, and doctors can look to these reflexes to help understand the extent of spinal cord injuries or the state of recovery.
  • Stage III – A person may then experience what’s known as hyperreflexia, which is categorized by an unusually strong pattern of temporary reflexes. This may seem odd, but it’s a good sign, as it’s the result of a new nerve synapse growth.
  • Stage IV  – Less frequent occurrences of hyperreflexia and muscle spasticity, return of normal reflexes as is consistent with the degree of your spinal cord injury.

Treating Spinal Shock

Treating spinal shock isn’t all that easy because it is a symptom of a larger issue, so trying to fix the symptoms won’t address the whole problem. It’s like trying to cure a fever that is caused by an infection. Also, doctors a more concerned about maintaining as much limb movement and normal range of motion after a spinal cord injury, so their focus is elsewhere. That being said, doctors may perform an operation like a spinal fusion or decompression to prevent further damage to the spinal cord, which can help spur reflex recovery.

At the end of the day, while spinal shock is something doctors will look for and patients may have to deal with after a spinal cord injury, doctors are going to be focused on treating the injury itself, not the resulting reflex symptoms. Testing for spinal shock can help doctors gauge the severity of the spinal cord injury, and surgery to fix a problem can aid in reflex recovery, but most doctors allow spinal shock healing to occur on its own. Depending on your condition, you may be told to attend physical therapy sessions that will work to strengthen the spine and maintain function in the area.

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