>EM Reflections October 2020 – Spinal Cord Injury

Big thanks to Dr. Joanna Middleton for leading the discussions in October

All cases are imaginary, but highlight learning points that have been identified as potential issues during rounds.

Edited by Dr. Mandy Peach


Spinal Cord Injury

  • Recognition of various patterns of spinal cord injury
  • Reviewing EMS record can be helpful for progression of symptoms and baseline exam
  • A normal CT does not rule out spinal cord injury in a patient with neurological deficits
  • Importance of detailed neurological exam and clear communication with consultant
  • Importance of clear documentation of exam – consider using ASIA

Case

A 72 yo female presents complaining of bilateral arm weakness ongoing for 1 day. She has no other symptoms concerning for stroke. She denies any direct trauma to head or neck, but did say she was pushed from behind by a large dog and her neck ‘snapped back’ the day prior. Incidentally she says she also hasn’t urinated in over 8 hours. Her vital signs are within normal limits.


 

You are concerned about a spinal cord injury – what are the various cord syndromes? What in the history predisposes to a particular spinal cord syndrome?

4 Classification of spinal cord syndromes

This woman is elderly, likely with underlying cervical spondylosis, and has a hyperextension injury – predisposing her to a central cord syndrome. This is the most common type of incomplete spinal cord injury. Often these patients are asymptomatic from their spondylosis before the event and the mechanism of injury is usually not severe5.

Central cord syndrome involves both motor and sensory pathways and has a variable presentation. Typically one sees motor weakness in the hands and forearms with sensory preservation. Bladder dysfunction and sexual dysfunction can be seen in severe cases5. A helpful mnemonic is MUD-E6.

 

MUD-E

  • Motor loss > sensory loss
  • UE > LE
  • Distal > proximal
  • Extension type injury

 

You complete a detailed neurological exam and find she does have upper limb weakness distally. A bladder scan confirms urinary retention with 850 cc of urine in her bladder.

You decide to order a CT C -spine to assess for bony injuries. The CT scan is unremarkable.

Does this rule out a spinal cord injury in this patient?

No – normal CT does not rule out SCI in a patient with ongoing neurological deficits. In fact, in elderly patients there is often no bony injury, but the narrowed spinal canal can predispose to buckling of the ligament flava, leading to injury of the spinal cord.

You review EMS notes and nursing documentation – there are subtle differences throughout in how the exam is performed and recorded.

What is one tool that can improve your documentation in terms of accuracy and clarity?

ASIA (American Spinal Injury Association) Classification

You document your findings on ASIA, which allows for clearer communication and documentation with the attending neurosurgeon.


 

References for further reading:

4 Perron & Huff (2010). Chapter 104 Spinal Cord Disorders. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. pp 1389-1397. Philadephia, PA

5  Douglas, Nowak et al. (2009). Review article: Central Cord Syndrome. Journal of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. 17: 756-765

6 A boring guide to spinal cord syndromes. CanadiamEM. https://canadiem.org/a-boring-guide-to-spinal-cord-syndromes/


 

Authored and Edited by Dr. Mandy Peach

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