How is a spinal cord injury diagnosed?

In an emergency, a healthcare provider makes sure a spinal cord injury isn’t affecting your breathing or heart rate. Next, they’ll assess how well your nerves are working. The provider checks:

  • Motor function, or your ability to move parts of your body.
  • Sensory function, or your ability to feel touch.

Certain imaging tests can help diagnose a spinal cord injury:

  • CT scan, to see broken bones, blood clots or blood vessel damage.
  • MRI, to see the spinal cord or soft tissues.
  • X-ray, to show broken bones or dislocations (bones knocked out of place).

A healthcare provider may also use an electromyogram (EMG) to check electrical activity in muscles and nerve cells if there are co-exist peripheral nerve injury. (EMG is usually not necessary in a spinal cord injury.)

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/01/2020.

References

  • Akkus S, Sezer N, Ugurlu FG. Chronic Complications of Spinal Cord Injury. World Journal of Orthopedics. 2015;6:23-33. Accessed 11/30/2020.
  • American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Spinal Cord Injury. Accessed 11/30/2020.
  • Atresh S, Goss B, Schuetz M, Urquhart S, Van Middendorp JJ, Williams RP. Diagnosis and Prognosis of Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury. Global Spine Journal. 2011;1:1-8. Accessed 11/30/2020.
  • Bellon K, Bitterman B, Chen D, Klaas SJ, Kolakowsky-Hayner SA, McDowell S. Evidence-based Practice in Primary Prevention of Spinal Cord Injury. Topics in Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation. 2013;19:25-30. Accessed 11/30/2020.
  • Burns AS, Fehlings MG, Harrop JS, Hawryluk G, Kwon BK, Martin AR, Tetreault LA, Wilson JR. A Clinical Practice Guideline for the Management of Acute Spinal Cord Injury: Introduction, Rationale, and Scope. Global Spine Journal. 2017;73:845-945. Accessed 11/30/2020.
  • Chen Y, Devivo MJ, Tang Y, Vogel LC. Causes of Spinal Cord Injury. Topics in Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation. 2013;19:1-8. Accessed 11/30/2020.
  • Fakhoury M. Neural Prostheses for Restoring Functions Lost After Spinal Cord Injury. Neural Regeneration Research. 2015;10:1594-1595. Accessed 11/30/2020.
  • Merck Manual. Spinal Cord. Accessed 11/30/2020.
  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Neurological Diagnostic Tests and Procedures Fact Sheet. Accessed 11/30/2020.
  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Spinal Cord Injury Information Page. Accessed 11/30/2020.

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