Understanding the Basics: Spinal Cord Injury

What is a Spinal Cord Injury?

The spinal cord is a soft bundle of nerve fibers and associated tissue running from the base of the brain down to the lower back. It is protected by the bones of your spine. It connects your brain to all parts of your body.

The spinal cord runs through the spinal canal: the tunnel formed by holes in the bones of the spine.

Any injury that damages these nerve fibers is a spinal cord injury (SCI).

Types of SCI

A spinal cord injury can cause permanent changes in strength, sensation, and body function below the site of the injury.

The ability to function varies among SCI survivors, depending on the location and severity of the trauma.

Cervical spine injuries affect vertebrae at the top of the spinal cord. Thoracic spine injuries affect middle vertebrae, lumbar spine injuries affect low vertebrae, and sacral injuries occur at the base of the spine.

Short video from brainandspine.org explains levels of function in spinal cord injuries

Diagnosing SCI

Spinal cord injuries are caused by a trauma to the spinal cord.

Sports injuries, falls, and violence account for some, but nearly half of all spinal cord injuries are the result of car accidents.

Signs of SCI may include:

  • Severe back pain
  • Pressure in the neck, head, or back
  • Weakness or a sudden loss of coordination
  • Numbness, tingling, or loss of sensation in the hands, fingers, feet, or toes
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Twisted or oddly-positioned neck or back

Anyone who has experienced significant trauma to the head or neck should seek immediate medical attention: the time between a spinal cord injury and treatment can significantly impact the potential for treatment.

If you suspect a spinal cord injury, do not move the patient unless it is an emergency. Wait for medical help to arrive to ensure the best outcome.