Living With a Spinal Cord Injury - What Happens
spinal cord injury (SCI) begins with a blow to the
spine , resulting in broken or dislocated
vertebrae (the individual bone segments that make up
the spine). The vertebrae bruise or tear the
spinal cord , damaging nerve cells. When the nerve cells are damaged, messages
cannot travel back and forth between the brain and the rest of the body,
resulting in complete or partial loss of movement (paralysis) and
A person with a potential SCI is taken to an emergency
department and then to an intensive care unit. Initial management of the injury
blood pressure and lung function as well as the spine,
to prevent further damage. Because a spinal cord injury is often caused by a
serious accident, treatment for other injuries is often needed. Immediately
after an SCI, treatment decisions are made quickly by the doctor because of the
seriousness of the injury.
Initial diagnosis often is made when a
doctor examines you during emergency treatment. A few days after the injury,
your doctor will ask you questions. Also, he or she will test not only the
strength of key muscles but also your response to light touch and pinpricks all
over your body.
The following tests may be done immediately, to
help find out the extent of the injury, and routinely throughout and after you
leave rehabilitation (rehab).
A spinal cord injury usually happens because of a sudden
severe injury to the spine. But sometimes the spinal cord is damaged by
infection, bleeding into the space around the spinal cord,
spinal stenosis, or by a birth defect, such as
Classifying a spinal cord injury
An SCI can be
classified based on function (how much feeling and
movement you have) or on where the damage occurred. When a nerve in the spinal
cord is injured, the nerve location and number are often used to describe how
much damage there is.
The vertebrae and spinal nerves are
segments , starting at the top of the spinal cord, and
within each segment they are numbered. The segments are as follows:
- Cervical. The neck area contains 7 cervical vertebrae (C1
through C7) and 8 cervical nerves (C1 through C8). Cervical SCIs usually cause
loss of function in the chest, arms, and legs. Cervical injuries can also
- Thoracic. The chest area contains 12 thoracic vertebrae (T1
through T12) and 12 thoracic nerves (T1 through T12). The first thoracic
vertebra, T1, is the vertebra where the top rib attaches to the spine. Thoracic
SCIs usually affect the chest and the legs. Injuries to the upper thoracic area
can affect breathing.
- Lumbar. The lumbar area (between the chest area and the pelvis)
contains 5 lumbar vertebrae (L1 through L5) and 5 lumbar nerves (L1 through
L5). Lumbar SCIs usually affect the hips and legs.
- Sacral. The sacral area (from the pelvis to the end of the
spine) contains 5 sacral vertebrae (S1 through S5) and 5 sacral nerves (S1
through S5). Sacral SCIs also usually affect the hips and legs.