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What Is a Spinal Stroke?

Rare But Dangerous, Spinal Strokes Can Lead to Paralysis and Even Death

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, damaging or even killing the cells in the spinal cord. While rare — they account for just 0.3% to 1% of all strokes — spinal strokes can lead to paralysis and sometimes death if not treated quickly.

“A common first symptom of a spinal stroke 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,” explains Babak S. Jahromi, MD, PhD, a neurosurgeon at Northwestern Medicine. “Symptoms will usually appear rapidly, over the course of minutes or hours.”

Blood flow to the spine can be affected by:

  • A blood clot
  • Narrowing of arteries from plaque buildup, which can be caused by:
  • Bleeding into the spinal cord, which can be caused by:
    • High blood pressure
    • 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)

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

If you or someone you know is showing signs of a stroke, call 911 immediately. The time that passes before getting care is a major factor in how much damage a stroke will do to the brain.