What is a Spinal Cord Injury?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Car accidents can cause a spinal cord injury.
Car accidents can cause a spinal cord injury.

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 responsible for transmitting messages to the body from the brain.
The spinal cord is responsible for transmitting messages to the body from the brain.

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.

Spinal cord injuries are often the result of trauma or chronic disease.
Spinal cord injuries are often the result of trauma or chronic 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.

Spinal cord injuries might leave people paralyzed.
Spinal cord injuries might leave people paralyzed.

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.

A patient with a spinal cord injury may need a ventilator to breathe.
A patient with a spinal cord injury may need a ventilator to breathe.

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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    • Car accidents can cause a spinal cord injury.
      Car accidents can cause a spinal cord injury.
    • The spinal cord is responsible for transmitting messages to the body from the brain.
      The spinal cord is responsible for transmitting messages to the body from the brain.
    • Spinal cord injuries are often the result of trauma or chronic disease.
      Spinal cord injuries are often the result of trauma or chronic disease.
    • Spinal cord injuries might leave people paralyzed.
      Spinal cord injuries might leave people paralyzed.
    • A patient with a spinal cord injury may need a ventilator to breathe.
      A patient with a spinal cord injury may need a ventilator to breathe.
    • Spinal cord problems can cause a loss of reflexes in the body.
      Spinal cord problems can cause a loss of reflexes in the body.