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Understanding Spinal Cord Injury

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What is a Spinal Cord Injury?

A spinal cord injury consists of damage to any part of the spinal cord or the nerves at the end of the spinal canal. The spinal column is composed of stacked bones called vertebrae. The vertebrae house the spinal cord. These nerves carry communication signals between the brain and the rest of the body. When damage occurs to a part of the spinal cord or nerves at the bottom of the spinal canal, it is considered a spinal cord injury. The spinal cord is responsible for many things including, but not limited to: transmitting pain signals and other sensory signals, allowing for movement -- both voluntary and involuntary, and communicating with organs and organ systems.

Types of Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord injury severity is divided into two categories: complete and incomplete. A complete spinal cord injury means that all ability to control movement is lost below the spinal cord injury location. An incomplete spinal cord injury means that some motor or sensory function exists below the injury.

Levels of severity within the incomplete category include quadriplegia or tetraplegia and paraplegia. Quadriplegia, otherwise known as tetraplegia, refers to any spinal cord injury above the first thoracic vertebra (T1) or any of the cervical vertebrae (C1- C8) and generally results in the paralysis of all four limbs. Paraplegia refers to any spinal cord injury below the first thoracic vertebra (T1) and generally results in the paralysis of the lower limbs.

Injuries closest to the neck typically cause paralysis in larger areas of the body while injuries closer to the lower back area do not. Most individuals with spinal cord injuries require devices such as walkers or wheelchairs to assist with limited mobility. Unfortunately, some individuals are completely paralyzed and require constant care. As a result of the loss of mobility, bed sores and urinary tract infections are common among those dealing with spinal cord injuries.

Symptoms of Spinal Cord Injury

The exact symptoms that an individual will experience as a result of a spinal cord injury depend on the type of spinal cord injury (incomplete vs complete) and the location at which the injury has occured on the spine. Symptoms of spinal cord injuries include, but are not limited to: loss of ability to control limbs, loss of ability to feel touch, heat, or cold; difficulty walking, unconsciousness, extreme headaches, loss of bowel or bladder control, spasms, signs of shock, pain or stinging sensation in the spinal cord; difficulty breathing or coughing, changes in sexual function, and/or an unnatural head position.


Spinal cord injuries often affect how the body functions. Permanent changes in bodily strength, sensation, and function, as well as, emotional and mental challenges may result from a spinal cord injury. Affected areas may include the bladder, bowels, skin, circulatory system, and respiratory system. Muscle tone, overall fitness and wellness, sexual function, and pain tolerance may also be affected.

Causes of Spinal Cord Injury

Damage to the spinal cord can be caused by a traumatic injury, spinal compression, inflammation, infection, bleeding, or spinal arthritis. Other causes of spinal cord injuries include, but are not limited to: falls, spina bifida, polio, accidents such as automobile or industrial accidents, diving accidents, sports injuries, arthritis, physical assaults such as gunshot or knife wounds, and cancer

Risk Factors for Spinal Cord Injuries

There are several factors which increase the odds of a spinal cord injury. Men account for 80% of those who sustain spinal cord injuries. Individuals between the ages of 16 and 30 are at increased risk, as are the elderly since they tend to experience more falls. Unquestionably, individuals who engage in high risk activities, such as diving into shallow water, playing some sports, or driving recklessly increase their chance of spinal cord injuries. Pre-existing conditions, such as arthritis or osteoporosis, may escalate the chance of spinal cord injuries.

Emergency Situations

Individuals should call 911 or go to a hospital if they experience: sudden, extreme pain or pressure in the neck, head or back; paralysis in any part of the body, loss of sensation in the hands, fingers, feet, or toes; loss of bladder or bowel control, difficulty walking or sudden balance issues, impaired breathing, or a twisted neck or back. These could all be signs of a medical emergency.

It is very important that no one should attempt to move someone that is suspected of having a spinal cord injury. Call 911 and follow the directions that are given.

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