A spinal cord injury can be defined by damage to any part of the spinal cord or nerves at the end of the spinal canal. Spinal cord injuries often cause lasting if not permanent changes in the injured individual’s strength, sensations and other bodily functions below the injury site.
Scientific research to repair damage to the spinal cord is ongoing. Currently, rehabilitation and therapy are allowing people with spinal cord injuries to live full and independent lives.
The central nervous system is made up of both the brain and spinal cord. The spinal cord consists of soft tissue that is surrounded by bones called vertebrae. It extends downward from the base of the brain and is made up of nerve cells that lead to different parts of the body. The lower end of the spinal cord ends just above the waist. Damage caused by a spinal cord injury affects the nerve fibers that pass through the injured area and may impair the communication between the brain and the body parts below the injury. (Mayo, 2017)
Causes of Spinal Cord Injuries
Spinal cord injuries are often the result of damage to the vertebrae, ligaments or disks of the spinal cord or spinal column. A traumatic spinal cord injury may stem from a sudden, traumatic blow to the spine that fractures, dislocates, crushes or compresses one or more vertebrae.
It is important to note that additional damage to the spine often occurs in the days or weeks following the trauma caused by bleeding, swelling, inflammation, and fluid accumulation in and around the spine.
Nontraumatic spinal cord injuries can also be caused by arthritis, cancer, inflammation, infections or disk degeneration of the spine. (Mayo, 2017)
Defining a Spinal Cord Injury
Maintaining use of the limbs after a spinal cord injury depends on the place of the injury along the spinal cord and the severity of the injury. (Mayo, 2017)
The lowest normally functioning part of the spinal cord is referred to as the neurological level of your injury. The severity of the injury is often called “the completeness” and is classified as either:
When all sensation and ability to control motor function are lost below the spinal cord injury, the injury is called complete.
If there is any motor or sensory function below the area of the injury, your injury is called incomplete. There are varying degrees of incomplete spinal cord injuries.
Paralysis from a spinal cord injury can also be called:
Tetraplegia: Also known as quadriplegia, this means that the injured party’s arms, hands, trunk, legs, and pelvic organs are all affected.
Paraplegia: This paralysis affects all or part of the trunk, legs and pelvic organs.
Spinal cord injuries may result in any of the following:
Loss of movement
Loss or altered sensation, including the ability to feel heat, cold and touch
Loss of bowel or bladder control
Exaggerated reflex activities or spasms
Changes in sexual function, sexual sensitivity and fertility
Pain or an intense stinging sensation caused by damage to the nerve fibers in your spinal cord
Difficulty breathing, coughing or clearing secretions from your lungs (Mayo, 2017)
Mayo, 2017. Spinal cord injury. Mayo Clinic. Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/spinal-cord-injury/symptoms-causes/syc-20377890 [Accessed October 17, 2018].