What is spinal cord injury?

Spinal cord injury is damage to the spinal cord as a result of a direct trauma to the spinal cord itself or as a result of indirect damage to the bones, soft tissues, and vessels surrounding the spinal cord. The spinal cord is the major bundle of nerves carrying nerve impulses to and from the brain to the rest of the body. Rings of bone called vertebrae surround the spinal cord. These bones constitute the spinal column (back bones).

Spinal cord damage results in a loss of function, such as mobility or feeling. In most people who have spinal cord injury, the spinal cord is not severed. Spinal cord injury is not the same as back injury, which might result from causes such as pinched nerves or ruptured disks. Even when a person sustains a break in a vertebra or vertebrae, there might not be any spinal cord injury if the spinal cord itself is not affected.

What happens in a spinal cord injury?

There are two kinds of spinal cord injury -- complete and incomplete. In a complete injury, there is no function below the level of the injury. There is no sensation or voluntary movement. In an incomplete injury, there is some functioning below the level of the injury.

What causes spinal cord injury?

Spinal cord injuries might result from falls, diseases such as polio or spina bifida (a disorder involving incomplete development of the brain, spinal cord, and/or their protective coverings), motor vehicle accidents, sports injuries, industrial accidents, and assaults, among other causes. If the spine is weak because of another condition, such as arthritis, apparently minor injuries can cause spinal cord trauma.