A spinal cord injury — damage to any part of the spinal cord or nerves at the end of the spinal canal — often causes permanent changes in strength, sensation and other body functions below the site of the injury.
If you’ve recently experienced a spinal cord injury, it might seem like every aspect of your life will be affected.
Many scientists are optimistic that advances in research will someday make the repair of spinal cord injuries possible. Research studies are ongoing around the world. In the meantime, treatments and rehabilitation allow many people with a spinal cord injury to lead productive, independent lives.
Your ability to control your limbs after spinal cord injury depends on two factors: the place of the injury along your spinal cord and the severity of injury to the spinal cord.
The lowest part of your spinal cord that functions normally after injury is referred to as the neurological level of your injury. The severity of the injury is often called “the completeness” and is classified as either of the following:
- Complete. If almost all feeling (sensory) and all ability to control movement (motor function) are lost below the spinal cord injury, your injury is called complete.
- Incomplete. If you have some motor or sensory function below the affected area, your injury is called incomplete. There are varying degrees of incomplete injury.
Additionally, paralysis from a spinal cord injury may be referred to as:
- Tetraplegia. Also known as quadriplegia, this means your arms, hands, trunk, legs and pelvic organs are all affected by your spinal cord injury.
- Paraplegia. This paralysis affects all or part of the trunk, legs and pelvic organs.
Your health care team will perform a series of tests to determine the neurological level and completeness of your injury.
Spinal cord injuries of any kind may result in one or more of the following signs and symptoms:
- Loss of movement
- Loss of sensation, including the ability to feel heat, cold and touch
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Exaggerated reflex activities or spasms
- Changes in sexual function, sexual sensitivity and fertility
- Pain or an intense stinging sensation caused by damage to the nerve fibers in your spinal cord
- Difficulty breathing, coughing or clearing secretions from your lungs
Emergency signs and symptoms
Emergency signs and symptoms of spinal cord injury after an accident may include:
- Extreme back pain or pressure in your neck, head or back
- Weakness, incoordination or paralysis in any part of your body
- Numbness, tingling or loss of sensation in your hands, fingers, feet or toes
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Difficulty with balance and walking
- Impaired breathing after injury
- An oddly positioned or twisted neck or back
When to see a doctor
Anyone who experiences significant trauma to his or her head or neck needs immediate medical evaluation for the possibility of a spinal injury. In fact, it’s safest to assume that trauma victims have a spinal injury until proven otherwise because:
- A serious spinal injury isn’t always immediately obvious. If it isn’t recognized, more severe injury may occur.
- Numbness or paralysis may develop immediately or come on gradually as bleeding or swelling occurs in or around the spinal cord.
- The time between injury and treatment can be critical in determining the extent of complications and the amount of recovery.
If you suspect that someone has a back or neck injury:
- Don’t move the injured person — permanent paralysis and other serious complications may result
- Call 911 or your local emergency medical assistance number
- Keep the person still
- Place heavy towels on both sides of the neck or hold the head and neck to prevent them from moving until emergency care arrives
- Provide basic first aid, such as stopping any bleeding and making the person comfortable, without moving the head or neck
Spinal cord injuries result from damage to the vertebrae, ligaments or disks of the spinal column or to the spinal cord itself.
A traumatic 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 also may result from a gunshot or knife wound that penetrates and cuts your spinal cord.
Additional damage usually occurs over days or weeks because of bleeding, swelling, inflammation and fluid accumulation in and around your spinal cord.
A nontraumatic spinal cord injury may be caused by arthritis, cancer, inflammation, infections or disk degeneration of the spine.
Your brain and central nervous system
The central nervous system comprises the brain and spinal cord. The spinal cord, made of soft tissue and surrounded by bones (vertebrae), extends downward from the base of your brain and is made up of nerve cells and groups of nerves called tracts, which go to different parts of your body.
The lower end of your spinal cord stops a little above your waist in the region called the conus medullaris. Below this region is a group of nerve roots called the cauda equina.
Tracts in your spinal cord carry messages between the brain and the rest of the body. Motor tracts carry signals from the brain to control muscle movement. Sensory tracts carry signals from body parts to the brain relating to heat, cold, pressure, pain and the position of your limbs.
Damage to nerve fibers
Whether the cause is traumatic or nontraumatic, the 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.
A chest (thoracic) or lower back (lumbar) injury can affect your torso, legs, bowel and bladder control, and sexual function. In addition, a neck (cervical) injury affects movements of your arms and, possibly, your ability to breathe.
Common causes of spinal cord injury
The most common causes of spinal cord injuries in the United States are:
- Motor vehicle accidents. Auto and motorcycle accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries, accounting for more than 35 percent of new spinal cord injuries each year.
- Falls. Spinal cord injury after age 65 is most often caused by a fall. Overall, falls cause more than one-quarter of spinal cord injuries.
- Acts of violence. Around 15 percent of spinal cord injuries result from violent encounters, often involving gunshot and knife wounds, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center.
- Sports and recreation injuries. Athletic activities, such as impact sports and diving in shallow water, cause about 9 percent of spinal cord injuries.
- Alcohol. Alcohol use is a factor in about 1 out of every 4 spinal cord injuries.
- Diseases. Cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis and inflammation of the spinal cord also can cause spinal cord injuries.
Although a spinal cord injury is usually the result of an accident and can happen to anyone, certain factors may predispose you to a higher risk of sustaining a spinal cord injury, including:
- Being male. Spinal cord injuries affect a disproportionate amount of men. In fact, females account for only about 20 percent of traumatic spinal cord injuries in the United States.
- Being between the ages of 16 and 30. You’re most likely to suffer a traumatic spinal cord injury if you’re between the ages of 16 and 30.
- Being older than 65. Falls cause most injuries in older adults.
- Engaging in risky behavior. Diving into too-shallow water or playing sports without wearing the proper safety gear or taking proper precautions can lead to spinal cord injuries. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries for people under 65.
- Having a bone or joint disorder. A relatively minor injury can cause a spinal cord injury if you have another disorder that affects your bones or joints, such as arthritis or osteoporosis.