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Spinal Cord Injuries

Definition and Overview:

A spinal cord injury is any injury to the spinal cord that results in a loss of function such as sensation or mobility. Spinal cord injury should not be confused with disease or disorder of the structures that surround the spinal cord such as the vertebrae or the vertebral discs, it is possible to “break your back” and not suffer any spinal cord injury. 

Causes and Symptoms:

Spinal cord injuries can occur after blunt trauma (injury incurred when the human body hits or is hit by a large outside object), which may cause spine fractures, spinal cord bruising or ligament injury. Spinal cord injuries can also be caused by penetrating trauma (such as a gunshot or stab wound to the spinal cord). Different parts of the body will be affected depending on the specific area of the spinal cord that is injured. An injured spinal cord can cause neurological deficits ranging from slight weakness and decreased sensation, to complete

The signs and symptoms of spinal cord injury depend on the location and the severity of the injury. They can also be complete injuries, where there is no retention of function, or incomplete injury where some function is retained. Cervical (neck) spine injuries, if complete, result in tetraplegia (paralysis of all four limbs). Also injury above the third cervical vertebrae can result in an inability to breathe.

Further down the cervical spine, injury will result in loss of function in the arms, shoulders, wrists, and hands. Thoracic spinal cord injury, if complete, will result in paraplegia (paralysis only in the lower body). Here the person will most often have control of arms, shoulders, and hands, but muscles of the trunk will be affected. If the site of injury is further down the thoracic vertebral level abdominal muscle control is better. Injuries in the lumbar and sacral regions tend to affect the ability to control legs, hips, and anus.

Some signs and symptoms of spinal cord injury include pain, loss of movement or sensation, loss of bowel and bladder control, exaggerated reflexes, changes in sexual function, and problems breathing.

Please go to the American Medical Association's Atlas of the Body to see the brain and spinal cord together form the central nervous system.


Associated pages

Spinal Cord Injuries_Anatomy and Physiology