Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Brain & Nervous System Health Center

Font Size

Living With a Spinal Cord Injury - Topic Overview

What is a spinal cord injury?

A spinal cord injury is damage to the spinal cord camera.gif. The spinal cord is a soft bundle of nerves that extends from the base of the brain to the lower back. It runs through the spinal canal, a tunnel formed by holes in the bones of the spine camera.gif. The bony spine helps protect the spinal cord.

The spinal cord carries messages between the brain and the rest of the body. These messages allow you to move and to feel touch, among other things. A spinal cord injury stops the flow of messages below the site of the injury. The closer the injury is to the brain, the more of the body is affected.

  • Injury to the middle of the back usually affects the legs (paraplegia).
  • Injury to the neck can affect the arms, chest, and legs (quadriplegia).

A spinal cord injury may be complete or incomplete. A person with a complete injury doesn't have any feeling or movement below the level of the injury. In an incomplete injury, the person still has some feeling or movement in the affected area.

What causes a spinal cord injury?

A spinal cord injury usually happens because of a sudden severe blow to the spine. Often this is the result of a car accident, fall, gunshot, or sporting accident. Sometimes the spinal cord is damaged by infection or spinal stenosis, or by a birth defect, such as spina bifida.

What happens after a spinal cord injury?

At the hospital, treatment starts right away to prevent more damage to the spine and spinal cord. Steps are taken to get your blood pressure stable and help you breathe. You may get a steroid medicine to reduce swelling of the spinal cord. A number of tests are done. These include X-ray of the spine, CT scan, MRI, and ultrasound of the kidneys. These tests are repeated over time to check how you are doing.

A few days after the injury, you will be tested to see how you respond to pinpricks and light touch all over your body. The doctor will ask you to move different parts of your body and test the strength of your muscles. These tests help the doctor know how severe the injury is and how likely it is that you could get back some feeling and movement. Most recovery occurs in the first 6 months.

As soon as you are stable, rehabilitation (rehab) starts. The goal of rehab is to help prepare you for life after rehab and help you be as independent as possible. What happens in rehab depends on your level of injury. The rehab team will help you to learn how to:

  • Prevent problems like pressure sores and know when you need to call a doctor.
  • Exercise to keep your muscles strong and flexible.
  • Eat a balanced diet to help you stay healthy and manage your weight.
  • Learn to do things that most people do without thinking, such as managing your bladder and bowel.
  • Use a wheelchair or other devices so you can do things you enjoy.

There is a lot to learn, and it may seem overwhelming at times. But with practice and support, it will get easier.

1|2

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: May 07, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
Next Article:

Today on WebMD

Depressed
Slideshow
3d scan of fractured skull
Slideshow
 
human brain waves
Article
brain maze
fitQuiz
 
senior man
Article
brain research briefing
Article
 
Syringe
Article
graphic of human head
Article
 
mans hands on laptop keyboard
Article
brain illustration stroke
Slideshow
 
most common stroke symptoms
Article
Parkinsons Disease Medications
Article