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Surgeon describes details of spinal injuries

Story by Lauren Potter, in-depth editor

Although diving injuries make up 2 to 25 percent of all spinal cord injuries, they often result in mass amounts of damage to the spine and spinal cord.  

Seeing patient to patient, performing surgery to surgery, orthopedic surgeon Dr. John Gregory has seen multiple spinal injuries, including ones related to diving.

“I have dealt with diving like injuries in the past,” Gregory said. “They can be anywhere from soft tissue injuries up to and including fractures and paralysis of the upper and lower extremities.”

A diving-like injury ends up damaging the spinal cord when the bones fracture and displace, and they can either severely bruise the nerves of the spinal cord or they can actually sever depending on the severity of the injury.

“In the case of a severed spinal cord, they would have no chance of ever regaining function,” Gregory said. “People that have diving injuries that have a partial quadriplegia and still have some function, they have a reasonable chance of gaining more function.”

In response to a spinal injury, surgery is almost always necessary to repair the discs in the spinal column.

“If they have a fracture and have a complete injury, meaning they are paralyzed, they do have surgery for the most part,” Gregory said. “Damages to the disc are treated by metallic implants either from the front of the spine or the back of the spine. You can either use a graft from the patients themselves or use cadaver graft.”

With diving accidents, ruptured and fractured discs are common and can be treated with surgery.

“If you just have a ruptured disc, which you can get from a diving accident, you would make an incision in the front of the neck, take the disc out, put a bone graft in and put a plate and screws,” Gregory said. “A fracture repair is pretty much the same. You can fix it from the front or fix it from the back or you can do both but that would be with plates, screws and possibly wires.”

Along with the amount of damage to the spinal cord, the site of the injury will also affect how much function is present.

“If you are damaged from C4 or C5 you could probably shrug your shoulders, but no more than that. Most of the injuries are from C5 to C7, which is in the lower neck,” Gregory said. “Paraplegic means only the legs, for that damage to the spine could be anywhere from the base of the neck down to the lumbar spine, which is the lower back, if you damage above that you would be a quadriplegic.”

Spinal injuries are described as complete or partial. A complete injury is damage to the spinal cord that is irreversible, while partial injuries have some chance of recovery.

“A partial injury would be an injury where you still have some movement of either your arms or your legs or both, but not complete movement or normal strength,” Gregory said. “You would still have an injury, it just wouldn’t involve the loss of all your strength or all of the feeling.”

Despite popular belief, regaining function after paralysis isn’t impossible and is common in some cases.

“The ones that present with complete loss of function below the level of the injury, their chance of having any return is about zero,” Gregory said. “For having a severe bruise to the spinal cord, if you had some function at the time of the injury it would be reasonable good to regain function.”