What are spinal fractures?
Spinal fractures are when the bones (vertebrae) in the spine break (fracture), usually occurring as the result of a major trauma. Common causes include being hit by a car, being attacked by another animal or running into something headfirst, normally a patio door. Sometimes, the vertebrae will come apart from each other (dislocation or luxation).
There are no breeds of animals that are more prone to spinal fractures, but they are more common in younger pets, as they have more energy and are as such more prone to experiencing a major injury.
Although normally the result of an injury, fractures and luxations can occur with minimal (if any) trauma as the result of an underlying condition, such as a tumour. These are known as pathological fractures.
Spinal fractures can be a distressing experience for you and your pet, and they may be temporarily paralysed as a result of the fracture. However, provided they have access to treatment and the damage to their nerves isn’t too severe, your pet should make a full recovery.
What are the symptoms?
When the vertebrae in the spine fracture or luxate, the resulting displacement can injure the nerves in the spinal cord, which affects your pet’s normal nerve function. The severity of the symptoms depends on how bad the concussion or compression of the animal’s spinal nerves is, and can vary from mild weakness to complete paralysis.
Because spinal fractures are usually the result of a serious trauma, your pet is at risk of other life-threatening conditions, such as internal hemorrhage. If your pet is displaying any of these symptoms, it’s important to seek medical help as soon as possible.
Other spinal fracture symptoms include:
- Evidence of trauma (like bite wounds)
- Spinal hyperesthesia (increased sensitivity)
- Abnormal curvature to the spinal column
- Reduced appetite
- Inability to walk
- Dragging rear legs
- Loss of feeling in the limbs and tail
- Pain on the spine, or other signs of intense discomfort (such as crying or yelping)
Your vet may be able to identify an abnormal alignment of the spine through a physical examination, which will also help them identify the severity of your pet’s nerve damage and whether they are still able to feel and react to pain. If a spinal fracture is detected, your pet will usually be given an x-ray to look for evidence of a fracture or dislocation.
Although an x-ray is usually enough to diagnose a spinal fracture, sometimes a more advanced imaging technique will be required to get a detailed view of the spine. A computed tomography (CT) scan can be useful for assessing the fractures in more detail, and a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan may be recommended to identify any damage to your pet’s spinal cord. After an initial physical assessment, your specialist will be able to recommend the best course of action for diagnosing your pet.
How do we treat spinal fractures?
Spinal fractions or luxations are often emergencies because of the risk of further damage to your pet’s spinal cord. If your pet suffered a fracture as the result of a serious injury, it’s also important for them to be assessed for other life-threatening conditions.
The good news is that there is a range of treatments available for spinal fractures, providing the animal is seen as soon as possible. Your specialist will be able to advise on the best course of action for your pet.
Conservative treatment: For pets with relatively stable vertebrae and minimal injury to their spinal cord, a spinal fracture may be treated conservatively without surgical intervention. This usually involves a neck or body brace, as well as strict cage rest and a course of steroids. Conservative treatment may also be recommended before surgery if the animal is in an unstable condition.
Surgery: If your pet has significant spinal cord injuries, is in severe pain or has an unstable spine, they may be treated surgically to realign their spine and stabilise the affected vertebrae. The procedure involves placing screws or pins in the bones on either side of the fracture before securing them with plates or bone cement. These may be used on their own or with external support from casts or braces.
The prognosis for animals with spinal fractures depends on how severe the injury to their spinal cord is, how they’re treated and how soon they receive medical help. If your pet can still feel pain in their limbs and tail, and they’re treated quickly, they should make a full recovery. Your pet’s recovery may take several weeks or months, depending on the severity of their injury, and they may require specialist rehabilitative care, such as physiotherapy or hydrotherapy.
Unfortunately, if your pet can no longer feel or react to pain, it’s extremely unlikely they will recover, and they may remain permanently paralysed.
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