A spinal cord injury damages the spinal cord itself or nearby tissues and bones. Depending on the severity of the injury, you may lose function or mobility in different parts of your body. Treatments include surgery, medication and physical therapy. A newer approach looks to tap working nerves.
The spinal cord relays messages between the brain and the rest of the body. Layers of tissue called meninges and a column of vertebrae (spinal bones) surround and protect the spinal cord. Most spinal cord injuries come from a sudden, traumatic blow to the vertebrae. The fractured (broken) bones then damage the spinal cord and its nerves. In rare cases, an injury can completely sever, or split, the spinal cord.
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The body loses many essential functions if an injury means nerves can’t communicate with the brain. A damaged spinal cord can affect:
A spinal cord injury isn’t the same as a back injury. Back injuries may damage bones or soft tissues in the spine, but they don’t affect the spinal cord.
Spinal cord injuries can be complete or incomplete (partial):
Some possible causes of spinal cord injuries (from most to least common) include:
Spinal cord injury symptoms depend on the type (complete or incomplete) and location of the damage. Get immediate medical attention if you notice any of the following issues after an injury:
In an emergency, a healthcare provider makes sure a spinal cord injury isn’t affecting your breathing or heart rate. Next, they’ll assess how well your nerves are working. The provider checks:
Certain imaging tests can help diagnose a spinal cord injury:
A healthcare provider may also use an electromyogram (EMG) to check electrical activity in muscles and nerve cells if there are co-exist peripheral nerve injury. (EMG is usually not necessary in a spinal cord injury.)
You may need emergency surgery for a spinal cord injury if there’s trauma to another area of the body. Surgery can also address spinal cord damage from broken bones, blood clots or damaged tissue.
Some research suggests that a corticosteroid injection may help spinal cord injuries. The medication should be given within eight hours after the injury occurs. This treatment may:
Long-term goals of spinal cord injury treatment include:
Long-term complications of a spinal cord injury may include:
Most people with a spinal cord injury will need some form of physical rehabilitation, or therapy. You may need inpatient (during a hospital stay) or outpatient (after a hospital stay) rehabilitation. A rehabilitation team can help you:
Neural prostheses (artificial body parts) are a potential new treatment for spinal cord injuries. A neural prosthesis replaces lost nerve function like how an arm or leg prosthesis replaces a lost limb. An electrical device connects to nerves that are still functioning. You use those nerves to control the prosthesis, which helps you move immobile parts of your body.
You can reduce your risk of a spinal cord injury by:
Complete spinal cord injuries are usually permanent. Incomplete spinal cord injuries may allow for some functional improvement over time.
Contact your healthcare provider right away if you develop:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Spinal cord injuries can have a profound effect on your life. If you’re dealing with a spinal cord injury, it’s important to have a strong support system. This support system may include your healthcare providers, family members, friends and community organizations. You can all work together to improve your health and quality of life.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/01/2020.
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