Your spine has plenty of nerves essential for transporting signals from your brain to the rest of your body. These are vital for voluntary and involuntary movement, such as moving your limbs or ensuring your digestive organs function normally. 

However, when blood flow to your spine is blocked, it can deprive your spine of oxygen and other nutrients transported by your blood. This can lead to a spinal stroke, which can have long-term effects on your physical and cognitive functioning.

What Is a Spinal Stroke?

Also known as a spinal cord infarction or spinal cord ischemia, a spinal stroke occurs when the blood flow to the spinal cord is disrupted. This causes tissue damage and spinal cord function impairment, among other spinal stroke symptoms. 

When blood flow to the spinal cord is reduced due to a clot or a bleed, it can damage or kill spinal tissue and cells in the affected area. This damage can lead to various issues with your physical and cognitive ability, including a loss of sensation, muscle strength, and reduced mobility below the level of the injury.

Spinal strokes are rare, especially compared to strokes in the brain. When left untreated, it could lead to a potentially life-threatening condition or long-term health issues. If you spot the symptoms of a spinal stroke on yourself or a loved one, you should seek immediate medical attention.

Common Spinal Stroke Symptoms

Symptoms can vary among patients depending on the cause of the stroke and which part of the spine was affected. These symptoms can develop within minutes or a few hours after a stroke occurs and worsen as time passes. 

Some spinal stroke symptoms include:

  • Severe, unexplained pain in the neck, arms, and back – patients may feel a sharp pain or burning sensation in these areas
  • Muscle weakness in the limbs, especially in the legs 
  • Muscle spasms
  • Numbness, tingling sensations, or general loss of sensation
  • Inability to feel hot and cold temperatures
  • Tightness, chest pains, and difficulty breathing
  • Loss of bladder control
  • Partial or full paralysis 

Some of these symptoms are similar to a brain stroke. However, patients experiencing a brain stroke can have symptoms such as issues with their speech, vision, and cognitive function. This can involve different treatments and recovery processes

Possible Causes of a Spinal Stroke

Spinal strokes can be caused by various factors that hinder blood supply to the spinal cord. The severity of the stroke depends on the extent of the damage to the spinal cord and the specific area affected. These include:

  • Blood Clots: This is generally due to atherosclerosis, a build-up of plaque that narrows blood vessels, though other factors can also lead to narrow vessels.
  • Injuries: Traumatic injuries to your back can affect blood vessels and cause a spinal stroke. Injuries like a gunshot wound can cause heavy bleeding that can lead to a spinal stroke.
  • Diseases and Infections: Spinal tuberculosis and other bacterial infections around the spinal cord can affect blood flow and develop abscesses.
  • Aging: Older adults can develop herniated discs. They are also prone to atherosclerosis and have narrow or weaker blood vessels.
  • Growths: Tumors, vascular malformations, and other growths causing spinal cord compression could affect a blood vessel.
  • Surgery: In rare cases, patients who have undergone abdominal or heart surgery can develop complications that lead to a spinal stroke. 
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In some cases, it’s unknown why a patient suffered a spinal stroke. 

Who Is at Risk of a Spinal Stroke?

 It’s estimated that spinal strokes account for 0.3 to 1.2% of all strokes worldwide. Most adult cases of spinal strokes occur when the shape of the blood vessels changes. 

Those with narrow and weaker blood vessels have a higher risk, which includes those who have the following:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol levels 
  • Cardiovascular conditions, such as heart disease
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Senior patients
  • Patients who have sedentary lifestyles
  • Patients who smoke and consume alcohol excessively 

Adult patients may also develop a spinal stroke from injuries, infections, or complications from surgery. A study published in 2016 found that patients who were younger, male, and had hypertension, diabetes, or high blood sugar levels were more likely to develop more severe spinal strokes. 

Spinal stroke cases are exceedingly rare among children, though they can develop from spinal injuries or congenital conditions that affect their blood vessels or blood clotting. 

Children are more at risk of developing a spinal stroke if they are born with:

  • Cavernous malformations
  • Arteriovenous malformations in the brain and spinal cord
  • Moyamoya disease
  • Vasculitis
  • Blood clotting disorders
  • Bacterial infections
  • Sickle cell anemia
  • Other diseases and conditions that require heart surgery

Diagnosis and Treatment

Those who have symptoms of a spinal stroke should seek emergency medical attention. An emergency room doctor or neurologist can diagnose a spinal stroke. Some tests needed to diagnose your condition include an interview, imaging, blood tests, and other tests to rule out other possible causes for your symptoms. 

Treatment can vary for each patient, depending on the severity of their symptoms, the cause, and the potential long-term damage from the stroke. These include:

  • Medication: Patients can be given thinners to clear blood clots and reduce the risk of reforming clots. Some medicines can treat the muscles or bladder control, while others reduce blood pressure and cholesterol.
  • Surgery: Stroke patients who have developed blood clots may require a thrombectomy. Doctors will either remove the affected blood clot from the vessel or widen the vessel to allow blood flow. 

Recovery, Prognosis, and Outlook

While spinal strokes are rare, they can be dangerous, especially if left untreated. The American Heart Association estimates that while up to 40% of patients recover after three or four years, up to 25% of patients pass away from severe complications stemming from their stroke. 

A 2016 study published in European Neurology found that patients who recovered from their spinal strokes had a better outlook on long-term mortality compared to those who recovered from brain strokes. 

Depending on the severity of your stroke, you may experience long-term or permanent side effects, which can include:

  • Partial or full paralysis
  • Chronic muscle weakness
  • Incontinence
  • Chronic joint pain
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty moving your arms and legs

Those who recover may require lifestyle changes, such as using walking aids and other assistive devices, to manage their day-to-day tasks. For instance, patients who develop incontinence may need a catheter to handle their urine. Other patients may require physical or occupational therapy to recover from their muscle weakness or improve mobility. 

How Can You Assist a Loved One Recovering From Spinal Stroke Symptoms?

Most patients have a good chance of recovery, especially if they seek immediate medical attention and have a proper recovery treatment plan. After being discharged from the hospital, your loved one may require assistance with everyday tasks. If they need assistive devices, there will be an adjustment period where they relearn how to perform daily tasks while adapting to their condition.

Giving your loved one access to quality physical and occupational therapy can help them recover some of their mobility. Some patients may also benefit from alternative rehabilitation therapy, such as aquatic therapy, to rehabilitate their mobility. 

Personalized Patient Care at Moody Neurorehabilitation 

Recognizing common spinal stroke symptoms can significantly improve the chances of timely diagnosis and immediate medical intervention. Remember that spinal strokes are relatively rare, but they can have severe life-long consequences if not addressed immediately. It is essential to remain vigilant and seek medical attention promptly if you or a loved one experiences these symptoms. 

Moody Neurorehabilitation has been providing highly specialized, personalized care to individuals seeking to recover from a stroke. Our well-maintained facilities and team of dedicated staff can cater to your specific needs as you work towards your breakthrough. 

Contact us today to arrange a consultation with our experts.

 

Sources:

Moody Neurorehabilitation Institute (Moody Neuro) provides personalized care to treat the unique challenges of brain injury with the singular purpose of achieving the best possible outcome for patients and their families.

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