Spinal cord injury

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at June 1, 2016
StartDiseasesSpinal cord injury

When damage occurs to a person's spinal cord, this is known as a spinal cord injury. These types of injuries can have health effects that are temporary or last a lifetime. The changes that result from a spinal cord injury may include a loss of sensation, loss of muscle function, as well as loss of the functions of the autonomic nervous system.


Definition & Facts

An injury to the spinal cord can be classified as either nontraumatic or traumatic. This will be determined by the cause of the injury. An example of a nontraumatic spinal cord injury could include cancer, inflammation, or infection. Traumatic spinal cord injuries result from physical injury.

In the United States, the number of individuals who have a spinal cord injury is estimated at more than 39 cases per million people. There are approximately 12,000 new spinal cord injuries experienced each year. Over 80 percent of spinal cord injuries are experienced by males. It is estimated that there are over 300,000 individuals in the United States now living with a spinal cord injury.

The severity of a spinal cord injury is referred to as its completeness. A complete spinal cord injury is when a person loses all feeling and ability to move their limbs below the area on the spine where the injury took place. An incomplete spinal cord injury is where a person has some feeling and ability for movement below an injured area of the spine. There are different degrees of incomplete spinal cord injury.

Quadriplegia refers to the paralysis of all four of a person's limbs, which includes the loss of function and possible loss of sensation in the hands, arms, trunk, legs. Spinal cord injury is the leading cause of quadriplegia. Paraplegia refers to paralysis that does not affect the function and use of the arms but impacts all or a portion of a person's pelvic organs, trunk, and legs.

Symptoms & Complaints

When a person experiences a spinal cord injury, it may not be immediately noticeable. One of the first things a person should be aware of after a serious injury is an acute pain in his or her neck, head, or back. He or she should contact a physician immediately if experiencing a decline of feeling in the extremities.

Losing control over a specific area of the body as well as problems with urination and bowel movements could indicate a spine problem. There could be difficulty walking as well as pressure or pain in the chest area. Lumps in the head or spine area are also indications of spinal cord injury.

Spinal cord injuries could result in exaggerated reflex activities, spasms, loss of movement, inability to control bladder, and inability to control bowels. Pain or a serious stinging sensation may also occur, which is a result of the damage to the nerve fibers in the spinal cord. There could be difficulty in breathing or clearing of the lungs and more.


A spinal cord injury will result from damage to the vertebra in a person's back. It could also result from damage to the intervertebral discs in the spinal column. Diseases such as cancer, osteoporosis, and more can also cause injuries to a person's spinal cord.

Traumatic spinal cord injuries typically result from a sudden and intense blow to a person's spine. This could cause dislocations, fractures as well as the compression or crushing of one or more of the vertebrae in the back.

One of the most common accidents resulting in spinal cord injuries is motor vehicle accidents. It's estimated that over 34 percent of new spinal cord injuries happen this way each year. After the age of 65, the most common cause is by falling. This accounts for over 25 percent of such injuries.

Approximately 15 percent of spinal cord injuries result from acts of violence. A stabbing or gunshot wound could penetrate through the body and cut the spinal cord. Impact sports and diving are responsible for 9 percent of spinal cord injuries. Alcohol use is a factor in 25 percent of spinal cord injuries.

Diagnosis & Tests

A doctor at a hospital will question a person suspected of having a spinal cord injury. They will test sensory function to determine the location of the injury. A physician may use different tests to identify a spinal cord injury. This could include a CT scan, which uses computers to create images showing the location and amount of damage. An MRI scan uses magnetic fields and radio waves to take a picture of the injured area. A myelogram is an X-ray of a person's spine taken after an injection of dye. A somatosensory test shows if nerve signals are able to pass through a spinal cord.

Treatment & Therapy 

A person suspected of having a spinal cord injury will be treated in an emergency room. The physician will focus on maintaining the patient's ability to breathe, preventing shock, immobilizing the neck, and trying to avoid all complications. A person may be given medications such as methylprednisolone. When this is administered to a patient within 48 hours of an injury, they may experience better treatment outcomes, though some medical research suggests that methylprednisolone doesn't improve treatment outcomes.

A person may be put into a spinal traction to stabilize their spine. This will bring a spine back into its correct alignment. In some situations, a rigid neck collar will be used. In many cases, surgery is necessary. This will be done to remove bone fragments or foreign objects as well as correct a herniated disk or fractured vertebrae.

The next step is rehabilitation. A team of physical therapists, rehabilitation nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, dietitians and more will coordinate physical therapy, occupational therapy, nutritional plans, and other therapies necessary for rehabilitation. A patient will learn muscle maintenance as well as strengthening existing muscles. Depending on the extent of their injury, they will be taught to redevelop their fine motor skills. A person will also learn adaptive techniques to handle daily tasks. They will be taught the latest technology available to help people with spinal cord injuries.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

The best way to prevent spinal cord injuries is to take the steps necessary to avoid accidents. Driving safely is essential because car accidents are the most common cause of people experiencing spinal cord injuries. Wearing seat belts and driving cars with airbags are crucial safety measures.

Wearing proper safety equipment when participating in contact sports is an important preventative measure as is using a spotter when lifting weights in the gym or doing gymnastics. People should also check the water depth in a pool or body of water before diving into it. The water needs to be at least 9 feet deep or more before it is safe for diving. One should always use handrails when on steps especially in icy conditions. The elderly can decrease their risk of falls by using mobility aids.