Often a spinal cord injury (SCI) is caused by a blow to the
spine , resulting in broken or dislocated bones of the spine (vertebrae.) 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. This causes a complete or partial loss of movement (paralysis) and
Sometimes the spinal cord is damaged by
infection, bleeding into the space around the spinal cord,
spinal stenosis, or a birth defect, such as
At the hospital
A person with a potential SCI is taken to an emergency
department and then to an intensive care unit. The first priority is stabilizing
blood pressure and lung function, as well as the spine,
to prevent further damage. When a spinal cord injury is caused by a
serious accident, treatment for other injuries is often needed.
The following tests may be done right away to
help find out the extent of the injury. They may also be done routinely throughout and after you
leave rehabilitation (rehab).
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.
Classifying a spinal cord injury
An SCI can be
classified based on how much feeling and
movement you have or 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. Within each segment they are numbered.
People with SCIs often use a segment of the spine to talk
about their functional level. (Your functional level is how much of your body
you can move and feel.) For example, you might describe yourself as a
The nerves around a vertebra control specific parts of the
body. Paralysis occurs in the areas of the body that are
controlled by the nerves associated with the damaged vertebrae and the nerves below
the damaged vertebrae. The higher the injury on the spinal cord, the more
paralysis there is.
- Damage to the spinal nerves in the neck can
cause paralysis of the chest, arms, and legs (tetraplegia, also known as
- Damage lower down on the spine (thoracic, lumbar, or sacral
segments) can cause paralysis of the legs and lower body (paraplegia).
- Breathing is only affected by injuries high on the spinal cord.
- Bowel and
bladder control can be affected no matter where the spinal cord is