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.
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 non-traumatic 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 non-traumatic, 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:
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 normal part of your spinal cord 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:
Additionally, paralysis from a spinal cord injury may be referred to as:
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:
Emergency signs and symptoms
Emergency signs and symptoms of spinal cord injury after an accident may include:
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:
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