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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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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.

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