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Spinal Cord Injury

Damage to the spinal cord can occur in any part. Damage to the nerves near the end of spinal cord (the cauda-equina) can also be a part of a spinal cord injury. The spinal cord transmits and receives messages between the brain, and the rest the body. A spinal cord injury can cause permanent changes to strength, sensation and other functions of the body below the area of injury.

A spinal cord injury can also have mental, emotional, and social effects.

Scientists are hopeful that research advances will one day make it possible to repair spinal cord injuries. Around the globe, research studies are being conducted. Treatment and rehabilitation allows many people with spinal injuries to live productive, independent, lives in the meantime.

Back and Neck Health


Two factors determine your ability to move your arms and legs after a spine cord injury. The location of the injury on the spinal chord is one factor. Another factor is the severity of the injury.

The neurological level is the lowest part of spinal cord that has not been damaged by an injury. The “completeness” of an injury is how much sensation (also known as feeling) has been lost. Completeness can be classified in:

Complete. A spinal cord injury is complete if all sensation and ability to control movement below the injury has been lost.

Incomplete. The injury is incomplete if there are still some sensations and movement control below the area of the injury. The degree of an incomplete injury can vary.

Paralysis is the loss of sensation and movement control. The paralysis caused by a spinal injury is known as:

Tetraplegia is also known as quadriplegia. Your spinal cord injury affects your hands, arms, trunk, legs, and pelvic organs.

Paraplegia. The paralysis of the legs, trunk and pelvic organs is not affected by this condition.

Your healthcare team will perform a series tests to determine your injury’s level of severity and neurological status.

The following symptoms can be caused by spinal cord injuries:

Loss of Movement

A loss of sensation or a change. This includes the inability to feel warmth, cold or touch.

The loss of bladder or bowel control.

Reflexes or spasms that are exaggerated.

Sexual sensitivity, changes in sexual function and fertility.

Damage to nerve fibers of the spinal cord can cause pain or a stinging sensation.

Coughing, difficulty breathing or clearing secretions of the lungs.

Emergency symptoms

The following are the emergency symptoms of spinal cord injury in an accident:

Back pain that is severe or pressure on the head, neck or back.

Inability to control or weaken any part of your body.

The hands, fingers, toes or feet may be numb, tingly or lose their feeling.

The loss of bladder or bowel function.

Balance and walking problems.

After injury, you may have trouble breathing.

The neck or back is twisted.

When to visit a doctor

Any person who suffers a head or neck injury should seek immediate medical attention. It is best to assume a spinal injury unless proven otherwise. It is important to know this because:

Serious spinal injuries are not always obvious. A spinal injury that is not recognized can lead to worse injuries.

Paralysis or numbness can occur suddenly or gradually.

It is important to consider the time between an injury and its treatment. The level of injury will help you determine your recovery.

If you suspect someone may have a neck or back injury:

Keep the injured person still. Paralysis permanent and other serious complications may result.

Call 911 or your local emergency medical services.

Keep the person still.

Or, place heavy towels on either side of the neck. Hold the head and neck in place until help arrives.

You can provide basic first aid such as stopping the bleeding and making sure the person is comfortable without moving their head or neck.

Make an appointment


Central nervous systemEnlarge Image

Spinal cord injuries are caused by damage to the spinal column or the vertebrae that surround it. Injury can also occur as a result if the disks or ligaments of the spine are damaged.

One or more vertebrae can be fractured, dislocated, crushed or compressed by a sudden and traumatic blow. Spinal cord injuries can also be caused by a gunshot or knife injury that cuts through the spinal cord.

Additional damage occurs usually over a period of days or weeks. After an injury, fluid and bleeding accumulate around and in the spinal cord.

Trauma is not the only cause of spinal cord injuries. Other causes of a spinal cord injury include arthritis, cancer, inflammation or infections.

The brain and central nervous systems

The central nervous system is made up of the brain and the spinal cord. The spinal cord is made up of soft tissue, and it is surrounded by vertebrae. The spinal cord extends from the base the brain. It contains nerve cells, and nerve groups called tracts. These tracts travel to different parts of the body.

Conus medullaris is the name of the region where the lower end stops. The cauda-equina is a grouping of nerve roots located below this region.

The spinal cord contains tracts that transmit messages from your brain to the rest of your system. Motor tracts are used to transmit signals from the brain that control muscle movements. Sensory tracts transmit signals to the brain from your body about heat, cold and pain.

Damage to nerve fibres

No matter if the spinal cord injury is caused by a traumatic or a non-traumatic event, it will affect the nerve fibers that pass through the area of damage. It can affect all or part of the muscles and nervous system below the site of injury.

A chest or lower-back injury can affect the legs, the bowel, the bladder, and the sexual function. The same areas are affected by a neck injury, plus the arm movements and breathing ability.

Spinal cord injuries: common causes

In the United States, spinal cord injuries are most commonly caused by:

The leading cause of spinal injuries is motor vehicle accidents. Motorcycle and auto accidents are the most common. Nearly half of all new spinal cord injuries occur in motor vehicle accidents.

Falling. The most common cause of a spinal cord injury in people over 65 years old is a fall.

Violent acts. Around 12% of spinal injuries are caused by violent encounters. Most often, these are gunshot wounds. Knife injuries are also common.

Sports injuries and recreational injuries Athletes who engage in impact sports or diving into shallow water cause 10% of spinal cord injury.

Spinal cord injuries can be caused by cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis, and inflammation.

Risk factors

Accidents can cause a spinal cord injury. It can happen to anyone. Some factors, however, can increase your risk of a spinal injury.

Men are more likely to suffer spinal cord injuries. Women account for less than 20% of all spinal cord injuries that occur in the United States.

Between the ages 16-30. Over half of all spinal cord injuries are caused by people between this age group.

A new spike in spinal injuries occurs after 65 years old. Most injuries among older adults are caused by falls.

Alcohol Use. About 25% of spinal cord injuries are caused by alcohol use.

Risky behaviors. Motor Vehicle crashes are the most common cause of spinal injuries in people under 65. Diversifying into shallow water or playing sports without safety gear and taking precautions are also risky behaviors.

Certain diseases. If you have osteoporosis or a disease that affects the joints and bones in your body, a minor injury could cause spinal cord damage.


Many complications can arise from a spinal cord injury. Your rehabilitation team will help you create tools to deal with these complications. They also suggest equipment and resources that will improve your independence and quality of life. The following areas are often affected:

Bladder Control. After a spinal injury, the bladder continues to hold urine from kidneys. The injury can interfere with brain messages that are needed to control the bladder.
Urinary tract infections are more likely to occur when bladder control is altered. Changes in bladder control can also cause kidney infections or kidney or bladder stone formation. During rehab, you will learn how to empty your bladder.

Control of bowel movement. Although the stomach and intestines continue to function as they did before injury, control over bowel movements may be altered. Diets high in fiber may help to regulate bowel movements. Learn how to control your bowel.

You may have lost all or some skin sensations below the level of injury. Your skin cannot send a signal to your brain if it is injured by something like prolonged pressure.
It can also increase your risk of developing pressure sores. It is possible to prevent pressure sores by changing positions frequently, with the help of a caregiver if necessary. Pressure sores can also be prevented by using proper skin care.

Circulatory Control. A spinal cord injury can cause low blood pressure in people who rise up, called orthostatic hypotension. Also, swelling may occur in the arms or legs. This can increase your risk of blood clots such as a deep vein thrombosis, or a lung embolism.
Autonomic dysreflexia is another issue that can be life-threatening with circulation control. If you have these problems, your rehabilitation team can show you how to deal with them.

Respiratory System. It may be difficult to breathe or cough if the injury is in the chest and stomach muscles.
The level of neurological injury will determine the type of breathing problem you might have. You may be at increased risk for pneumonia or other lung diseases if the neck and chest are affected. Treatment and prevention can be helped by medicine and therapy.

Bone densities. Spinal cord injuries increase the risk of fractures and osteoporosis below the injury.

Muscle tone. Some spinal cord injury patients have spasticity, a tightening of the muscles. Flaccidity is a term used to describe people with soft, limp muscles that lack muscle tone.

Fitness & wellness. Weight gain and muscle loss are common after spinal cord injuries. Limited mobility can result in a sedentary life style, which increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
A dietitian will help you maintain a healthy body weight by recommending a balanced diet. Physical and occupational therapists are able to help you create a fitness program.

Sexual Health. A spine cord injury can cause changes in erection, ejaculation or lubrication. Specialized healthcare professionals in urology and fertility can provide options for sexual function and fertility.

Pain. Overuse of certain muscle groups can cause pain in some people, including muscle or joint pain. After a spinal injury, nerve pain is common. This is especially true for those who have an incomplete injury.

Depression. The pain and changes that a spinal injury can bring about in some people can lead to depression.

The following is a list of preventions.

This advice could reduce your risk of spinal cord injury.

Be careful when driving. Auto accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injury. Always wear a seatbelt when you’re in a moving car.
Make sure your child wears a seatbelt or uses a child safety seat that is appropriate for their age and weight. Children under 12 years old should ride in the rear seat to protect themselves from airbag injuries.

Before diving, check the depth of the water. Do not dive in a pool that is less than 9 feet (2.74 meters) deep or clearly marked as safe for diving. Competition diving requires a deeper depth. If you are not sure how deep the water or aboveground pool is, don’t jump in.

Avoid falls. Use an elevated step stool equipped with a grab-bar to reach objects that are high up. Add handrails along stairways. Use non-slip mats in the shower or tub and on tiles. Use safety gates to block the stairs for young children and install window guards.

Be careful when you play sports. Wear the recommended safety equipment. In sports, avoid leading with your heads. For example, don’t slide headfirst in baseball. Don’t tackle with the top of your head in American football. Gymnastics: Use a spotter to learn new moves.

Do not drink alcohol or drive while under the influence. Avoid riding with a drunk driver.

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