Spinal Cord Injuries (SCI)

Spinal cord injury is a common cause of permanent disability and death in children and adults, but it doesn’t have to be.

Acute spinal cord injury (SCI) is due to a traumatic injury that can either result in a bruise (also called a contusion), a partial tear, or a complete tear (called a transection) in the spinal cord. SCI is more common in men and young adults.

There are about 12,000 new cases of SCI each year. In the U.S., there are over 250,000 people living with a spinal cord injury.

SCI results in a decreased or absence of movement, sensation, and body organ function below the level of the injury. The most common sites of injury are the cervical and thoracic areas. SCI is a common cause of permanent disability and death in children and adults.

What are the risk factors for acute spinal cord injury?

Some people are at higher risk for SCI than others. Average age at the time of injury has increased over the past few decades and is currently 42 years. Most people who suffer SCIs are male. Non-Hispanic whites are at higher risk for SCI than any other ethnic group.

Understanding Spinal Cord Injuries

Symptoms of an acute SCI can vary widely. The location of the injury on the spinal cord determines what part of the body is affected and how severe the symptoms are.

Right after a spinal cord injury, your spine may be in shock. This causes loss or decrease in feeling, muscle movement, and reflexes. But, as swelling eases, other symptoms may appear depending on the location of the injury.

Generally, the higher up the level of the injury is to the spinal cord, the more severe the symptoms. For example, an injury to the neck, the first and second vertebrae in the spinal column (C1, C2), or the mid-cervical vertebrae (C3, C4, and C5) affects the respiratory muscles and the ability to breathe. A lower injury, in the lumbar vertebrae, may affect nerve and muscle control to the bladder, bowel, and legs, and sexual function.

  • Quadriplegia is loss of function in the arms and legs.
  • Paraplegia is loss of function in the legs and lower body.

The extent of the damage to the spinal cord determines whether the injury is complete or incomplete.

  • A complete injury means that there is no movement or feeling below the level of the injury.
  • An incomplete injury means that there is still some degree of feeling or movement below the level of the injury.

These are the most common symptoms of acute spinal cord injuries:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of voluntary muscle movement in the chest, arms, or legs
  • Breathing problems
  • Loss of feeling in the chest, arms, or legs
  • Loss of bowel and bladder function

The symptoms of SCI may look like other medical conditions or problems.

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