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Quick Dose: What Is a Spinal Stroke?

Similar to strokes that occur in the brain, spinal strokes occur when blood flow to the spine is blocked. When the spinal cord doesn't receive enough blood, it doesn't get enough oxygen and nutrients, causing the cells in the spinal cord to become damaged and even die.

Blood flow to the spine can be affected by:

  • A blood clot
  • Narrowing of arteries from plaque buildup (which can be caused by high levels of bad cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, and other vascular risk factors)
  • Bleeding into the spinal cord, caused by:
    • High blood pressure (hypertension)
    • A spinal vascular malformation (an abnormal connection between spinal arteries and veins)
    • A spinal aneurysm (a bulge representing an area of weakness in the wall of an artery)

A common first symptom of spinal strokes can be neck and arm pain, followed by weakness, numbness, or even paralysis. However, symptoms may vary based on what part of the spine is affected by the stroke. Symptoms will usually appear rapidly, over the course of minutes or hours. Spinal strokes can lead to paralysis and sometimes death if not treated quickly.
Long-term effects of spinal strokes include:

  • Physical weakness or paralysis
  • Loss of sensation in arm or leg
  • Difficulty walking or using hands
  • Difficulty with breathing
  • Pain
  • Urinary or bowel incontinence
  • Sexual problems
  • Mental health issues, including depression.

Spinal strokes are rare, accounting for 1% of all strokes.