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.
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.
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.
A spinal cord injury requires immediate treatment to avoid long-term effects. In some cases, surgery might be recommended to stabilize the bones of the spine, but surgery does not necessarily reduce or repair nervous system injury. Bed rest might be needed in order for the spine to heal. After acute spinal cord injuries occur, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and other rehabilitation interventions sometimes are required. Currently, there is no cure for spinal cord injury; however, researchers continue to work on advances, many of which have resulted in a decrease in damage at the time of the injury.
The effects of a spinal cord injury can vary based on the injury's location. Injuries that are sustained near the top of the spine result in more extensive disability (numbness and paralysis, breathing difficulty) than injuries low in the spine. Some common outcomes are muscle spasms, the loss of sensation in parts of the body, numbness, pain and paralysis. Death can result if there is a paralysis of the muscles that control breathing.
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 06/05/2017