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What is a spinal cord injury?

A spinal cord injury damages the spinal cord, so that the nerves can no longer carry messages, and communication between the brain and the body is not connected like it normally is. This can cause a lot of problems, from loss of feeling to trouble with going to the bathroom.

Although the hard bones of the spinal column protect the soft tissues of the spinal cord, vertebrae can still be broken or dislocated in a variety of ways to cause traumatic injury to the spinal cord. Injuries can occur at any level of the spinal cord. The segment of the cord that is injured, and the severity of the injury, will determine which body functions are compromised or lost. Since the spinal cord acts as the main information pathway between the brain and the rest of the body, a spinal cord injury can have significant physiological consequences.

Catastrophic falls, being thrown from a horse or through a windshield, or any kind of physical trauma that crushes and compresses the vertebrae in the neck can cause irreversible damage at the cervical level of the spinal cord and below. Paralysis of most of the body, including the arms and legs, called quadriplegia, is the likely result. Automobile accidents are often responsible for spinal cord damage in the middle back (the thoracic or lumbar area), which can cause paralysis of the lower trunk and lower extremities, called paraplegia.

Other kinds of injuries that directly penetrate the spinal cord, such as gunshot or knife wounds, can either completely or partially sever the spinal cord and create life-long disabilities.

Most injuries to the spinal cord do not completely sever it. Instead, an injury is more likely to cause fractures and compression of the vertebrae, which then crush and destroy the axons, extensions of nerve cells that carry signals up and down the spinal cord between the brain and the rest of the body. An injury to the spinal cord can damage a few, many, or almost all of these axons. Some injuries will allow almost complete recovery. Others will result in complete paralysis.

Until World War II, a serious spinal cord injury usually meant certain death, or at best, a lifetime confined to a wheelchair and an ongoing struggle to survive secondary complications, such as breathing problems or blood clots. Today, however, improved emergency care for people with spinal cord injuries along with aggressive treatment and rehabilitation can minimize the damage to the nervous system and even restore limited abilities.

This answer is based on source information from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

A spinal cord injury is an acute and traumatic injury to the spine. The injury may weaken the spine or cause permanent and irreversible damage. Normally, an injury to the spinal cord fractures or dislocates the vertebrae. Immediately upon trauma or impact, there can be fractures of the bony elements, dislocation at one or more joints, ligament tears and bruises, and disruption or herniation of the discs.

Because the spinal cord provides the main communication between the brain and the nerves that progress to the organs, muscles, and skin, an acute and traumatic spinal cord injury can immediately suspend all movement, sense of feeling and many bodily functions, including bowel and bladder control and breathing. Most vertebral spinal cord injuries in adults involve both fracture and dislocation.

An injury to the spinal cord, the central carrier of signals throughout the body, may be simply a bruise (or contusion), or a partial or complete tear. A mild contusion may cause the temporary loss of some function below the site of the injury. A complete transection, or severing of the spinal cord, causes a total and permanent loss of sensation and movement below the site of the tear.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.