What to Do If Someone Has a Spinal Injury

Spinal Injury

What is a Spinal Cord Injury?

Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) occurs as a result of traumatic events such as motor vehicle accidents, sporting accidents, and even falls. It often happens to young and fit people and can have devastating effects.

Refers to the damage to any part of the spinal cord or nerves found at the end of the spinal canal. SCI can result in permanent changes in movement, sensation, and other bodily functions below the injury site.

There is no reliable estimate of SCI cases worldwide, but the estimated annual global rate is 40 to 80 cases per million population.

The greatest risk is a permanently damaged spinal cord. If this happens, you may lose sensation and movement below the injury.

Possible causes of a spinal injury:

  • falling from a height (falling from a ladder, tree, post)
  • falling awkwardly (from sports and gymnastics)
  • Hitting the bottom of a shallow pool
  • falling from a moving motorbike or a horse
  • sudden braking in a vehicle
  • a heavy object/load falling across their back
  • trauma to the head
  • head and brain injuries

Older people are at higher risk of having neck injuries than younger people. It can even occur from a standing height fall or slipping on a slippery floor in the elderly.

It is critical to keep the person’s head in line with their neck in a spinal cord injury. Try to avoid any form of twisting of their neck and do not allow their head to roll to the side. If you can, roll a towel or similar soft item and place it around their neck. Doing this will keep their head straight and avoid twisting. Do not try to move the person unless there is immediate danger.

Signs and symptoms of spinal injuries may include:

  • The body lying in an awkward and unnatural position
  • Skin feeling clammy and cold
  • Feeling unusual tingling sensations in the limbs or an absence of any sensation (not feeling any pain)
  • Inability to move limbs.

Spinal Injuries on Toddlers

Toddlers experience falling over all the time. Parents and babysitters should note that a fall from the child’s height is very unlikely to cause a spinal injury.

Seek medical attention immediately if the child shows any signs of serious spinal injury. Look for signs of an unusual feeling of drowsiness or vomiting. Check if your child appears to be unconscious or did not cry immediately after the fall. If you suspect the fall was heavy enough to cause harm to your child, seek professional help.

Examples of falls that cause spinal injuries to children include falling down a flight of stairs, rolling from a normal height change table to a hard floor, falling to a hard surface, or a head strike on bedside furniture. If in doubt, see your doctor.

First Aid for Spinal Injuries

The possibility of a spinal injury exists in any accident involving the head, face, neck, or back. Try to avoid permanent paralysis by immobilising the person and transporting them correctly.

Here is how you manage spinal injuries for unconscious and conscious victims.

For unconscious victims:

  1. Follow the DRSABCD action plan. (Danger, Response, Send for Help, Airway, Breathing, Circulation)
  2. Place the unconscious patient in the recovery position. Provide support to the neck and spine in a steady position at all times to prevent twisting or unnecessary movements.
  3. Maintain a clear and open airway until emergency services are ready to take over.

For conscious victims:

  1. Reassure the person and do your best to keep them calm. Encourage them to remain completely still while you try to loosen any strict clothing.
  2. Provide support to the person’s head, neck, spine, and keep it in a neutral position at all times. Do this to prevent twisting or unnecessary bending movements.
  3. If the person shows no signs of life, start CPR. However, if you are trained in delivering first aid, you can perform modified CPR. Modified CPR allows you to safely resuscitate while still protecting the spine. Do not tilt the head back in an attempt to open the airway. Instead, use your fingers to gently grasp the person’s jaw and lift it forward. If the person shows no signs of a pulse, begin with chest compressions.
  4. Ensure that you or someone has called the emergency services. If there are bystanders in the area who can help you, ask them to put rolled-up a blanket or a towel on either side of the head while you keep the person’s head in a neutral position. Continue to support their head until emergency help arrives and can officially take over.
  5. Keep monitoring the person’s breathing and level of response while waiting for help to arrive.

Recovery position for spinal injury

If you suspect a spinal injury but cannot maintain an open airway, you need to place them in the recovery position. And if you are alone, try to keep the person’s head and spine in a straight line while maintaining an open airway. If you have someone with you, one of you should hold the head steady and maintain an open airway. The other person should keep the spine in line while turning the person into the recovery position. Continue doing this until help arrives.

Do not move the person with spinal injury, unless there is an immediate threat to their life, such as a fire and road traffic. If there is immediate danger, keep providing support to the person’s head and neck while moving them to a safer place.

If the spinal injury happens during a diving accident, do not remove the person from the water. Try to float the person face-up in the water until medical help arrives.

And, of course, it’s always a good idea to do a first aid course so that you have some knowledge to draw on in a crisis.