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Spinal Cord Injury

Chief Complaint: 19-year-old man with broken back.


History: Allen Dexter, a 19-year-old college student, was rock climbing when he fell 30
feet to the ground. Paramedics arriving at the scene found him lying in the supine
position, unable to move any extremities and complaining of neck pain. He was awake,
alert, and oriented to his current location, the date and day of the week, and the details
of his fall. His responses to questioning were appropriate. He complained that he could
not feel his arms and legs. His pupils were equal and reactive to light. He showed no
other signs of injury except for several scrapes on his arms. His vital signs revealed a
blood pressure of 110 / 72, heart rate of 82 beats per minute, respirations of 18 per
minute. The paramedics applied a cervical collar, placed him on a back board,
immobilized his head, and transported him to the trauma center by helicopter.
Upon examination at the hospital, Allen had minimal biceps brachii stretch reflexes, but
no triceps or wrist extensor reflexes. All other muscle stretch reflexes in the upper and
lower extremities were absent. His perception of sensory stimuli ended bilaterally at an
imaginary line drawn across his chest about 3 inches above the nipples (i.e. everything
below felt numb). He had some sensation in his arms, but could not localize touch or
describe texture with any consistency there. He was able to raise his shoulders and
tighten his biceps brachii slightly in each arm, but could not raise either arm against
gravity. His lower extremities were flaccid, despite attempts to move them. Vital signs
were taken again at the hospital and were as follows: blood pressure=94 / 55; heart
rate=64; respiratory rate=24 (with shallow breathing). His oral temperature was 102.2
degrees F. His color was dusky and his skin was warm and dry to the touch.
X-rays taken upon arrival revealed a fractured vertebra at a particular location. A chest
X-ray showed a decreased lung expansion upon inhalation. Blood tests were normal,
with the exception of a respiratory acidosis (blood pH = 7.25). The neurosurgeons
immobilized his neck by inserting tongs into the skull above the ears to hold his neck in
a position so that no further injury could occur. Allen was transferred to intensive care
and his condition was stabilized.
A physical examination four days later revealed normal vital signs and no change in his
arm strength or sensation, but also marked spasms and exaggerated stretch reflexes of
the lower extremities. He also had urinary incontinence which required the placement of
a Foley catheter connected to a urine collection bag
Questions:

1. Why did Allen's heart rate and blood pressure fall in this time of emergency (i.e. at a
time when you'd expect just the opposite homeostatic responses)?

2. Upon admission to the hospital, Allen's breathing was rapid and shallow.
Can you explain why?
3. Why did Allen lose some sensation in his arms and all sensation from the
4. Why did Allen have dry skin and a fever upon admission to the hospital?
5. Based upon the physical exam findings, which vertebral bone do you think
was fractured? Give reasons for your answer
6. What is the normal pH of the blood? Why was Allen's blood pH below
normal?
Answer:
7. What is the primary muscle of respiration? What nerve innervates this
muscle?
8. Which spinal nerves contribute neurons to the nerve you named in question
#7?
9. By four days after the injury, some of Allen's signs and symptoms had
changed. Allen's arm muscles were still flaccid, yet his leg muscles had
become spastic and exhibited exaggerated stretch reflexes. Use your
knowledge of motor neural pathways to explain these findings
10. Why did Allen suffer from urinary incontinence?