Spinal Cord Injury: Basic Facts
What is spinal cord?
The spine or backbone is made up of 33 small spinal bones called vertebrae. Inside the spine is a bundle of delicate nerves called the “spinal cord”. These nerves provide two-way communication between the brain and all parts of your body. They make it possible for us to feel and to move. When we notice that our hands are cold, that means that the nerves in the spinal cord have transmitted information about temperature from our hands to our brain. We can warm our hands with our breath when our brain communicates with the nerves that control our muscles in our arms, allowing them to bring our hands closer to our mouth.
What is a spinal cord injury?
Some neck or back injuries result in broken vertebrae, with no damage to the spinal nerves. In these situations, a brace or surgery may be required to keep the bones stable while they heal. This reduces swelling and prevents the broken bones from shifting and harming the spinal cord. The individual often recovers well in several weeks.
Note: Spinal cord injury is very different from injuries such as fractured vertebrae, pinched nerves, spinal stenosis or ruptured disks.
In the case of a spinal cord injury (SCI), the delicate bundle of nerves inside the vertebrae have been damaged. An illness or a traumatic event (like a fall) can cause bleeding, bruising, pressure, swelling or tearing of the spinal cord nerve fibers. When this happens, communication between the brain and the rest of the body may be disrupted. Some of the diseases that can cause injury to the spinal cord include multiple sclerosis (MS), transverse myelitis, polio, cerebral palsy, Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS).
A severe spinal cord injury often causes loss of good control over movement (paralysis) and / or loss of sensation. It can also interfere with breathing and with the functioning of the bladder, bowel and sexual organs. In some cases, patients may experience problems such as pain, muscle spasms or sensitivity to touch. The Rehabilitation specialists will address these problems and work to prevent possible complications such as bladder or lung infections and pressure ulcers (bed sores).
- Motor vehicle accidents
- Diving into shallow water
Spinal cord injuries affect more men than women. The majority of people who sustain a spinal cord injury are young adults between the ages of 16 and 30 because of riskier behaviors.
- Cancer Osteoporosis
- Multiple sclerosis
- Inflammation of the spinal cord
The effects of spinal cord injury may include the following:
- Loss of movement
- Loss of sensation
- Loss of bowel and/or bladder control
- Exaggerated reflex actions or spasms
- Changes in sexual function, sexual sensitivity and fertility
- Pain or intense stinging sensation
What is a “complete” or “incomplete” spinal cord injury?
A spinal cord injury is called “complete” when testing by the medical team indicates that the patient is unable to make any voluntary movement below the level of the injury. An injury can be called “complete” even if the spinal cord is not severed.
The injury is called “incomplete” when testing demonstrates that the patient is able to make some voluntary movement below the level of injury.
What is meant by the “level” of a spinal cord injury?
The medical team refers to how high up on the spine the injury occurred by using a series of letters and numbers. They do this because it provides a description of the severity of the injury. Generally, the higher up the injury is, the more severe the loss of function.
The highest section of the spine is called the “cervical” region. It has 7 vertebrae. The levels within this region are referred to as C1, C2, C3, C4, C5, C6 and C7. A “quadriplegic” patient has a complete or incomplete injury at the cervical level.
Lower down is the “thoracic” region. It has 12 vertebrae. The levels within this region are referred to as T1, T2, T3, T4, T5, T6, T7, T8, T9, T10, T11 and T12. “Paraplegic” patients have an injury at or below this level.
The lowest region is the “lumbar” region. It has 5 vertebrae. The levels within this region are referred to as L1, L2, L3, L4 and L5.
Below the lumbar region are the 5 sacral vertebrae (which are fused together) and 4 more fused vertebrae that make up the coccyx (tailbone).
Note: Even though two patients may technically have the same level and type of injury (for example, “a complete T1 injury”), their degree of impairment and eventual recovery may be quite different, due to the extent of the damage and other complex factors.
The most important thing to know is that each person’s recovery from spinal cord injury is different.
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