Tests and diagnosis

By Mayo Clinic Staff

In the emergency room, a doctor may be able to rule out a spinal cord injury by careful inspection, testing for sensory function and movement, and asking some questions about the accident. But if the injured person complains of neck pain, isn't fully awake, or has obvious signs of weakness or neurological injury, emergency diagnostic tests may be needed.

These tests may include:

  • X-rays. Medical personnel typically order these tests on people who are suspected of having a spinal cord injury after trauma. X-rays can reveal vertebral (spinal column) problems, tumors, fractures or degenerative changes in the spine.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan. A CT scan may provide a better look at abnormalities seen on an X-ray. This scan uses computers to form a series of cross-sectional images that can define bone, disk and other problems.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRI uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to produce computer-generated images. This test is very helpful for looking at the spinal cord and identifying herniated disks, blood clots or other masses that may be compressing the spinal cord.

A few days after injury, when some of the swelling may have subsided, your doctor will conduct a neurological exam to determine the level and completeness of your injury. This involves testing your muscle strength and your ability to sense light touch and a pinprick.

Oct. 22, 2011

You Are ... The Campaign for Mayo Clinic

Mayo Clinic is a not-for-profit organization. Make a difference today.