The Causes and Symptoms of a Spinal Stroke


A spinal stroke can be a devastating occurrence. Fortunately, it is a rather rare disorder.  Only about one percent of all strokes are spinal strokes. A spinal stroke is sometimes referred to as a spinal column stroke. The medical term for it is a spinal cord infarction. An infarction is a disruption of the blood supply to tissues or organs. In this case, the blood supply to the spinal column has been disrupted.


As is the case with other kinds of strokes, such as those affecting the brain, recovery can be partial, total, or there may be no recovery at all. What happens in this case is that the blood supply is blocked somewhere between the aorta and the arteries that supply blood to the spinal column. There are two main blood vessels the channel blood to the spinal column, the posterior spinal artery and the anterior spinal artery. The posterior artery lies at the back of the spinal cord, and the anterior artery lies along the front. It is somewhere in the anterior artery where the blood supply disruption most often occurs. There are two basic types of stroke, each depending upon the particular cause. An ischemic stroke is caused by a blockage of some type. The blockage is most often due to a blood clot. The other type of stroke is the hemorrhagic stroke, which is caused by leaking or bleeding from an artery due to a rupture in the arterial wall. There are also instances of this type of stroke being the result of malformed blood vessels, unusually tangled blood vessels, or following abdominal surgery.


Why A Spinal Stroke Can be So Devastating


If the blood supply to the spinal cord is interrupted, the blood flow to the central nervous system will be interrupted as well, at least that part of the nervous system than is located along the spine. This part of the nervous system controls the arms and the legs, as well as certain lower abdominal muscles,   particularly the bladder. The symptoms of such a stroke will relate to where along the spinal column the infarction occurred. In some cases, the legs and lower abdomen may only be affected. There may be a loss of bladder control as well as paralysis in the legs. Bowel movement could also be affected. If the blockage or leakage occurs higher up along the spinal cord, the arms may be affected, and total paralysis could result. The paralysis will in some cases be accompanied by a loss of sensation in the affected limbs or organs. This paralysis and loss of sensation may be only temporary, but in some cases can be permanent. The prognosis will to a large extent be determined by the amount of damage done to tissues when the blood supply has been interrupted. The amount of damage that is suffered is of course a variable. In the most extreme cases, a patient could become totally and permanently paralyzed, while another could fully recover quite quickly.


What Treatment is Available and What is the Prognosis?


Treatment will focus on the symptoms. There will be a heavy reliance placed on physical therapy aimed at helping the patient to recover from the paralysis or any weakness that is being experienced. The goal of course will be to return the patient to a condition of as much independence as is possible. Treatment also needs to be psychologically supportive. The patient will have suddenly gone from a condition of normal mobility to one of partial or complete paralysis, and may require around-the-clock attention at first. For almost everyone, this can be a devastating experience. Treatment also needs to focus on keeping a patient’s spirits up, and encouraging the patient to actively participate in whatever physical therapy is called for. Initially, there will be a great deal of emphasis placed on preventing complications arising from bowel and bladder dysfunction, as well as complications that can arise from immobility. Despite the severity of the symptoms that often follow in the wake of a spinal stroke, the prognosis for most patients is rather good, with most patients recovering at least partially, and quite often fully.


Are There Any Warning Signs?


There are times when such a stroke comes about without much in the way of warning. There may be a sharp pain felt in the back, followed by a feeling of weakness in the legs. This weakness may be accompanied by muscle spasms and is often followed by the onset of partial or total paralysis that tends to spread upwards.


Just as a heart attack can be mild or severe, or a normal stroke can be mild or severe, so it is with this type of a stroke. If there is arterial bleeding, it may be possible to treat the condition before the symptoms become too widespread. In the case of clotting, a blood clot can completely block the blood supply to a part of the spinal cord, or break up, and only cause a temporary blockage. Like heart attacks and other strokes, the chances for recovery are usually better if emergency medical assistance is sought and is readily available.