Spinal Cord Injury

The term “spinal cord injury” (SCI) refers to any injury of the neural (pertaining to nerves) elements within the spinal canal. SCI can occur from either trauma or disease to the vertebral column or the spinal cord itself. Most spinal cord injuries are the result of trauma to the vertebral column. These injuries can affect the spinal cord’s ability to send and receive messages from the brain to the body systems that control sensory, motor, and autonomic function below the level of injury. Depending on the location and severity of the injury, the body can be affected in a myriad of ways. Typically, the nerves above the injury site continue to function as they always have and the nerves below the site do not.

Types of Spinal Cord Injury

The type of spinal cord injury is classified by the doctor as “complete” when the nerve damage obstructs every signal coming from the brain to body parts below the injury; it is considered “incomplete” when only some of the signals are obstructed. In an incomplete injury, the amount and type of message that can pass between the brain and parts of the body will depend on how many nerves have not been damaged. The level of injury is determined by which vertebrae of the spinal cord has been injured. The closer the injury is to the brain, the greater the loss of function and feeling will be. A person is said to have paraplegia when he or she has lost feeling and is not able to move the lower parts of the body.

Someone with tetraplegia (formerly called quadriplegia) has lost movement and feeling in both the upper and lower parts of the body. Sometimes the spinal cord is only bruised or swollen after the initial injury and as the swelling goes down, the nerves may begin to work again. Unfortunately, there are no tests which will determine how many nerves, if any, will work again. The longer there is no improvement, the less improvement will occur.

In addition to movement and feeling, a spinal cord injury affects other bodily functions, such as breathing, bowel and bladder control. There may also be changes in sexual function.

While we continue to learn more about spinal cord injury, much of the available research and data is still incomplete. We have, however, summarized as much information as possible to give you a better understanding of the many aspects of traumatic spinal cord injury. For more information on spinal cord injury statistics, call the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center in Birmingham, Alabama at 205-934-3320.