Spinal cord injury
Injury (SCI) is damage to the spinal cord that
results in a loss of function such as mobility or
A diagnosis of spinal cord injury can be
Accidents - motor vehicle accidents, falls and
sports injuries - and acts of violence cause most
injuries to the spinal cord. The injury interferes
with your brain's ability to communicate through
your nervous system with other parts of your body.
It's possible to retain all or nearly all
sensation and movement after a spinal cord injury.
Unfortunately, most trauma to the spinal cord causes
permanent disability or loss of movement (paralysis)
and sensation below the site of the injury.
Paralysis can involve all four extremities, a
condition called quadriplegia or tetraplegia, or
only the lower body, resulting in paraplegia.
Signs and symptoms
The signs and symptoms of a spinal cord injury depend on two factors:
The location of
In general, injuries that are higher in the spinal cord produce more
paralysis. For example, a spinal cord injury at the neck level may
cause paralysis in both arms and legs and make it impossible to
breathe without a respirator, while a lower injury may affect only
the legs and lower parts of the body.
The severity of
Spinal cord injuries are classified as partial or complete,
depending on how much of the cord width is damaged. With a partial
spinal cord injury, the spinal cord is able to convey some messages
to or from the brain. So people with partial spinal cord injury
retain some sensation and possibly some motor function below the
affected area. A complete injury is defined by complete loss of
motor function and sensation below the area of injury. However, even
in a complete injury, the spinal cord is almost never completely cut
in half. Doctors use the term complete to describe a large
amount of damage to the spinal cord.
Spinal cord injuries of any kind may result in one or more of the
following signs and symptoms:
Pain or an intense
stinging sensation caused by damage to the nerve fibers in the
Loss of movement
Loss of sensation,
including the ability to feel heat, cold and touch
Loss of bowel or
activities or spasms
Changes in sexual
function, sexual sensitivity and fertility
breathing, coughing or clearing secretions from the lungs
Emergency signs and symptoms of spinal cord injury after a head injury
or accident may include:
in and out of consciousness
back pain or pressure in the neck, head or back
incoordination or paralysis in any part of the body
or loss of sensation in the hands, fingers, feet or toes
of bladder or bowel control
balance and walking
positioned or twisted neck or back
Together, your spinal cord and your brain make up your central nervous
system, which controls most of the functions of your body. The nerve fibers feed into nerve roots that
emerge between your vertebrae — the 33 bones that surround your spinal
cord and make up your backbone. There, the nerve fibers organize into
peripheral nerves that extend to the rest of your body.
spinal cord injury may stem from a sudden, traumatic blow to your spine
that fractures, dislocates, crushes or compresses one or more of your
vertebrae. It may also result from a gunshot or knife wound that
penetrates and cuts your spinal cord. Additional damage may occur over
days or weeks because of bleeding, swelling, inflammation and fluid
accumulation in and around your spinal cord.
This trauma and damage affects the nerve fibers passing through the
injured area and may impair part or all of your corresponding muscles
and nerves below the injury site. Spinal injuries occur most frequently
in the neck (cervical) and lower back (thoracic and lumbar) areas. A
thoracic or lumbar injury can affect leg, bowel and bladder control and
sexual function. A cervical injury may affect breathing as well as
movements of your upper and lower limbs.
The most common causes of spinal cord injury are:
Auto and motorcycle accidents are the leading cause
of spinal cord injuries, accounting for approximately 40 percent of
new spinal cord injuries each year.
About a quarter of spinal cord injuries result from
violent encounters, often involving guns and knifes.
cord injury after age 65 is often caused by a fall. Overall, falls
make up 22 percent of spinal cord injuries.
activities such as impact sports and diving in shallow water cause
up to 10 percent of spinal cord injuries.
Cancer, infections, arthritis and inflammation of the spinal cord
also cause spinal cord injuries each year. The exact number isn't
Although a spinal cord injury is usually the result of an unexpected
accident that can happen to anyone, some groups of people have a higher
risk of sustaining a spinal cord injury. These include:
cord injury affects a disproportionate amount of men. In fact, women
account for only 18 percent of spinal cord injuries.
More than half the people living with a spinal cord
injury were injured between the ages of 16 and 30. However, research
shows an increase in the number of people who are at least 61 years
old at the time of injury. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading
cause of spinal cord injury for people under age 65, while falls
cause most injuries in older adults.
People who are
active in sports.
activities include football, rugby, wrestling, gymnastics, diving,
surfing, ice hockey and downhill skiing.
A relatively minor
injury can cause spinal cord injury in people with conditions that
affect their bones or joints, such as arthritis or osteoporosis.
Spinal cord injury
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