While there are several different types of compression injury, all involve the compression of nerve tissue. For our nervous system to work properly, the nerves throughout the body must be free of pressure so they can easily send signals back and forth from the extremities, through the spinal cord to the brain. If any part of this complex network is compressed through a blunt force trauma or constant repetitive pressure being placed on an important nerve conduit, pain and other symptoms can result.
Although the vertebrae normally do a good job of protecting the nerves of the spinal cord from injury, a spinal cord compression injury can be caused by a number of different things:
- Trauma from an accident (such as a fall or something being dropped on your head), which can compress the vertebrae, leading to ruptured or herniated discs and swelling of the spinal cord.
- Pressure on the nerves from a hematoma, pus or a tumor.
- Progressive degenerative disease of the vertebrae that puts pressure on the spinal nerves.
There are also chronic nerve compression injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, radial tunnel syndrome and cubital tunnel syndrome. In these cases, the spaces through which the nerves run are narrowed due to inflammation or fluids putting pressure on the nerves. Cyclists often suffer from what’s referred to as “cyclist’s palsy” in their hands, which is due to constant pressure being put on the hands near the wrist. Special gloves have been designed with padding in appropriate places to ease the pressure in this area.
Symptoms of a compression injury can range from mild to severe, depending on the amount of compression. Both types of compression injury cause sensations of pain, numbness and tingling. In addition to these symptoms, spinal cord compression injuries may also produce muscle weakness, muscle spasms, erectile dysfunction, partial or total paralysis and problems with bladder and bowel control. There is also some evidence that spinal cord compression can cause changes to the brain’s motor cortex.
The pain from a spinal compression injury may radiate into the shoulder or arm and sometimes reaches as far down as the hands; it is also a common cause of sciatica, with pain that radiates from the lower back, through the hip and down the leg.
If a compression injury is dealt with immediately, it is usually highly treatable; it is more difficult to treat if it has lasted for sufficiently long to destroy the nerve pathways that lead to the brain. Chiropractic care is a good way to help relieve the pain from a compression injury, particularly in relation to herniated discs. A 2009 meta-analysis found that “spinal manipulation is more effective at relieving local or radiating pain in people with acute back pain and sciatica with disc protrusion compared to any other treatment recommendations.”
Your chiropractor can perform spinal adjustments to help relieve pain and take the pressure off the affected nerves. He or she may also recommend specific exercises to strengthen the area around the injury. In some cases, your health care provider may recommend taking an NSAID such as ibuprofen to reduce inflammation or advise a corticosteroid injection. In severe cases, surgery is sometimes necessary to release the compressed nerves, however, trying a conservative, drug-free approach first, such as chiropractic, is often a good place to start.