The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that carries signals between the body and the brain. It is protected by the vertebrae, made up of 26 bone disks, that protect and support the spinal cord and nerves. There are several conditions and injuries that affect the spine, damaging the vertebrae, causing pain and limited mobility. Often, spinal cord diseases are devastating. Common symptoms include numbness, pain, muscle weakness, and a loss of sensation around the spinal cord, arms, and legs. If recognized and treated at an early stage, many spinal cord diseases can be reversible.

What causes spinal cord disorders?

Depending on the condition, the causes differ. Some common causes of spinal cord disorders include:

  • Accidents
  • Infection
  • Congenital disorders (present since birth)
  • Inflammation
  • Degenerative wear and tear with aging

Among the risk factors, major ones are obesity, sedentary lifestyle, smoking, improper exercise, poor posture, and other conditions like thyroid, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.

Let’s take a look at the causes and symptoms of some common spinal cord diseases.

Spinal tumour

A spinal tumour is a growth either within the bones of the spine, blood vessels, or the spinal canal. While a spinal cord or intradural tumour begins within the spinal cord, a vertebral tumour affects the bones of the spine.

Spinal cord tumours can be classified in three categories depending on where they occur:

  • Intramedullary tumours begin in the cells within the spinal cord
  • Extramedullary tumours grow in the spinal cord membrane or the nerve roots that extend from the cord

Spinal tumours cause pain, neurological problems, and sometimes paralysis. Sometimes they may be life-threatening and cause permanent disability. Symptoms typically include pain at the site of the tumour, difficulty walking, back pain that extends to other body parts, loss of sensation in the arms and legs, and muscle weakness. Common treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, and other medications.

The cause of spinal tumours isn’t clear; experts suggest genetic factors and environmental factors like exposure to chemicals. If you have persistent and progressively worsening back pain that gets worse at night, a history of cancer, changes in bowel function, etc., seek medical attention.

Spinal infections

A spinal infection occurs when bacteria, fungi, or viruses attack spinal tissues in the vertebrae, spinal discs, spinal canal, or the spinal cord. Some common spinal infection types are –

  • Discitis – When the pathogens infect the intervertebral discs, the condition is called
  • Osteomyelitis – When pathogens infect bones in the spine
  • Spinal epidural abscess – Nerve pain and the buildup of pus, commonly found in the lumbar region
  • Meningitis – Swelling of tissues around the brain and spine

The symptoms of a spinal infection often develop slowly, sometimes taking months. Common warning signs include stiffness in the neck, low back pain, loss of mobility, fever, loss of appetite, surgical wounds that discharge pus, etc. While many of these infections are treatable with antibiotics, a spine infection is a health emergency and should be given immediate medical attention.

Causes behind spinal infections can range from taking immunosuppressants to recent spine or pelvic surgery. Other infections such as pneumonia and tuberculosis can also spread to the spine from the lungs. Diseases that increase the risk of contracting a spinal infection include cancer, HIV, diabetes, and malnutrition.

Transverse myelitis

This neurological disorder is the inflammation of both sides of one section of the spinal cord, damaging the myelin, which is the insulating material covering nerve cell fibres. In this condition, messages from the spinal cord to the rest of the body are interrupted. The result can be muscle weakness, pain in the lower back, paralysis, sensations of numbness, weakness in the arms or legs, or bladder and bowel dysfunction.

Causes of transverse myelitis range from infections and immune system disorders to spinal cord strokes.

Spinal muscular atrophy

Spinal muscular atrophy typically affects children, rendering them unable to use their muscles. When atrophy occurs, nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord break down, and the brain stops communicating messages that control muscle movement. As a result, patients have trouble controlling head movement, sitting without help, and sometimes even walking.

Spinal muscular atrophy is a genetic condition, a result of faulty genes from both parents. If the child receives these genes from just one parent, he will not have the condition but will be a carrier of the disease.

The symptoms of spinal muscular atrophy depend on the type of the condition. Type 1 is the most severe form, where the child cannot support his head without help and will have problems swallowing. Because of the attendant severe breathing problems, survival rate is low. Type 2, known as chronic infantile spinal muscular atrophy, has moderate to severe symptoms. Type 3 is the mildest form of the condition while Type 4 afflicts adults with symptoms that continue throughout life.

While there’s no cure for the condition, symptoms can be treated with medication.

Treatment for spine disorders

Spine specialists will use one or a combination of treatments, depending on the condition and severity. If you are experiencing signs and symptoms of spinal cord disorders, call your doctor and schedule a check-up.

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