Spinal cord injuries

A spinal cord injury is damage to the spinal cord that can interfere with how messages travel back and forth between the brain and the rest of the body. An injury to the spinal cord can result in complete or partial loss of movement (paralysis) and feeling and complete or partial loss of bladder and bowel function.

The degree of lost feeling and/or movement in a spinal cord injury depends on how high on the spinal cord the damage occurs (the level of the injury). Damage to the spinal cord in the neck area (cervical segment) can result in complete or partial paralysis of the arms and legs (tetraplegia, also known as quadriplegia). Damage lower on the spinal cord can result in complete or partial paralysis of the legs and lower body (paraplegia). Breathing is only affected by injuries high on the spinal cord. But bowel and bladder control can be affected no matter where the spinal cord is injured.

The spinal cord can be injured because of an accident, such as a fall or a car accident, or because of a disease, such as an incorrectly formed spine (spina bifida) or a narrowing of the spinal canal.

Treatment immediately after a spinal cord injury can help limit nerve damage. Extensive rehabilitation is needed to learn to live with less mobility and feeling.

Last Updated: February 18, 2009

Author: Shannon Erstad, MBA/MPH

Medical Review: William M. Green, MD - Emergency Medicine & Nancy Greenwald, MD - Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

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