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Spinal Cord Injury


What is a spinal cord?

Your spinal cord is made up of nerves and nerve fibers. Nerves send signals back and forth between your brain and different parts of your body. The signals tell your muscles when to move and your body when to feel sensations, such as pain. Your spinal cord is protected by vertebrae that make up your spinal column. Your spinal column is divided into four levels. The levels include the cervical (neck), thoracic (upper to middle back), lumbar (lower back), and sacral (tailbone) vertebrae.

What causes a spinal cord injury?

A spinal cord injury (SCI) can happen with trauma or disease to the spinal column. An SCI may occur if your spinal column presses down on or pinches your spinal cord. This can cause swelling or bruising of your spinal cord. Damage to your spinal column, disease, and infection can cause an injury in your spinal cord .

What are the types of SCI?

You have an incomplete injury if you have some feeling or movement below the level of injury. You have a complete injury if you have no movement or feeling below the level of injury.

  • Tetraplegia usually happens at a level from C1 to T1. You may not have any feeling or movement of your arms and legs. You also may not be able to move your head and neck. This may also be called quadriplegia.
  • Paraplegia usually happens at a level from T2 to S5. You may have a loss of feeling or movement in your chest, stomach, hips, legs and feet.
    Spinal Cord Injury

How is an SCI diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will do tests to see if you have any movement or feeling in your arms and legs. You may also need tests such as MRI, CT, or X-ray, to show any damage to your spinal cord. You may be given contrast material to help show the damage to your spinal cord better. Tell your healthcare providers if have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast material.

What is the immediate treatment for an SCI?

You may have to be put in a firm brace or have traction to your spine. The brace and traction are used to prevent movement of your spinal column. Movement of your spinal column may cause more damage to your spinal cord. You may also need medicines to keep you from moving. You may need a ventilator to help you breathe if your injury affects your lungs. You may need surgery to remove the part of your spinal column that is damaging or blocking your spinal cord.

What health problems are common with an SCI?

These complications can become life-threatening:

  • Pressure injuries (bedsores)
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Hyperreflexia caused by an irritant to nerves below the level of injury
  • Lung conditions such as pneumonia, pulmonary blood clots, collapsing of your lung

Why is rehabilitation after an SCI important?

You will begin rehabilitation after your hospitalization. The goal of rehabilitation is to help you function with an SCI. The rehabilitation team includes:

  • A doctor that specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation
  • Physical therapists that teach you exercises to build strength and use of adaptive devices such as wheelchairs
  • Occupational therapists that teach you how to do activities of daily living, such as grooming and toileting routines
  • Rehabilitation psychologists that help you cope emotionally with your SCI
  • Rehabilitation nurses, dietitians, social workers, and other specialists that monitor your condition

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

Learn more about Spinal Cord Injury

IBM Watson Micromedex

Symptoms and treatments

Mayo Clinic Reference