What is a Spinal Cord Injury?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 02 March 2020
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A spinal cord injury is an injury which affects the spinal cord, a key part of the central nervous system. In the wake of an injury to the spinal cord, a patient will experience disabilities below the level of the injury. Spinal cord injuries vary widely in severity, which makes proper diagnosis very important to ensure that a patient receives the correct level of care. Because such injuries are a major concern for people who have been in traumatic accidents, training about spinal cord injuries is provided to many first responders so that they do not inadvertently cause someone additional harm when they respond to an accident.

The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves which runs through the vertebrae of the spine, with bundles of nerve fibers periodically running out of the spinal cord and into various regions of the body. Everything from breathing to wiggling one's toes is controlled with the spinal cord. Spinal cord injuries can occur as the result of a trauma such as a car accident or gunshot, or from nontraumatic injuries such as chronic spinal disease.


When doctors examine a spinal cord injury, they classify it first by location, determining which section of the spinal cord has been damaged. Every part of the body below that section will experience problems as a result of the injury, making cervical injuries in the neck particularly troubling, and lumbar injuries in the lower spine less problematic. Since doctors know which parts of the body correspond to which vertebrae, they can often pinpoint an injury before performing a medical imaging study to confirm the location.

The next step in the assessment is arriving at a description of severity. In a complete spinal cord injury, the patient experiences complete or near-complete cessation of movement below the injury, as for example in a paraplegic who cannot move his or her legs as the result of a spinal cord injury. With a partial spinal cord injury, the patient has some function, but not as much as he or she would normally.

Damage caused by a spinal cord injury is permanent, as there is no cure for spinal damage. The injury can be associated with spasticity, pressure sores, chronic pain, sexual dysfunction, loss of bowel control, difficulty breathing, loss of bladder control, and the tendency to develop more serious injuries. A patient who loses feeling in a knee, for example, won't notice when that knee is burned. Depending on the site of the injury, a patient may require substantial supportive care which could include a mechanical ventilator, an indwelling catheter, and other medical devices used to assist with bodily functions.



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