What is a spinal cord injury?
What are some signs and symptoms of spinal cord injury?
How are spinal cord injuries diagnosed?
How is SCI treated?
What research is being done?
How can I help with research?
Where can I get more information?
A spinal cord injury (SCI) is damage to the tight bundle of cells and nerves that sends and receives signals from the brain to and from the rest of the body. The spinal cord extends from the lower part of the brain down through the lower back.
SCI can be caused by direct injury to the spinal cord itself or from damage to the tissue and bones (vertebrae) that surround the spinal cord. This damage can result in temporary or permanent changes in sensation, movement, strength, and body functions below the site of injury.
Injury and severity
The extent of disability depends on where along the spinal cord the injury occurs and the severity of the injury.
Loss of nerve function occurs below the level of injury. An injury higher on the spinal cord can cause paralysis in most of the body and affect all limbs (called tetraplegia or quadriplegia). A lower injury to the spinal cord may cause paralysis affecting the legs and lower body (called paraplegia).
A spinal cord injury can damage a few, many, or almost all of the nerve fibers that cross the site of injury. A variety of cells located in and around the injury site may also die. Some injuries having little or no nerve cell death may allow an almost complete recovery.
Type of injury
A spinal cord injury can be classified as complete or incomplete.
Primary damage is immediate and is caused directly by the injury. Secondary damage results from inflammation and swelling that can press on the spinal cord and vertebrae, as well as from changes in the activity of cells and cell death.
Motor vehicle accidents and catastrophic falls are the most common causes of SCI in the United States. The rest are due to acts of violence (primarily gunshot wounds and assaults), sports injuries, medical or surgical injury, industrial accidents, diseases and conditions that can damage the spinal cord, and other less common causes.
For information on what makes up the spinal cord and spinal column, see the Appendix at the end of this document.
A spinal cord injury can cause one or more symptoms including:
How are spinal cord injuries diagnosed?
The emergency room physician will check for movement or sensation at or below the level of injury, as well as proper breathing, responsiveness, and weakness. Emergency medical tests for a spinal cord injury include:
Immediate (acute) treatment
At the accident scene, emergency personnel will put a rigid collar around the neck and carefully place the person on a rigid backboard to prevent further damage to the spinal cord. Sometimes the person may be sedated to relax and prevent movement. A breathing tube may be inserted if the person has problems breathing and the body isn’t receiving enough oxygen from the lungs.
Immediate treatment at the trauma center may include:
Possible Complications of SCI and treatment
Once someone has survived the injury and begins to cope psychologically and emotionally, the next concern is how to live with disabilities. Doctors are now able to predict with reasonable accuracy the likely long-term outcome of spinal cord injuries. This helps people experiencing SCI set achievable goals for themselves and gives families and loved ones a realistic set of expectations for the future.
Rehabilitation programs combine physical therapies with skill-building activities and counseling to provide social and emotional support, as well as to increase independence and quality of life.
A rehabilitation team is usually led by a doctor specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation (called a physiatrist) and often includes social workers, physical and occupational therapists, recreational therapists, rehabilitation nurses, rehabilitation psychologists, vocational counselors, nutritionists, a case worker, and other specialists.
In the initial phase of rehabilitation, therapists emphasize regaining communication skills and leg and arm strength. For some individuals, mobility will only be possible with assistive devices such as a walker, leg braces, or a wheelchair. Communication skills such as writing, typing, and using the telephone may also require adaptive devices for some people with tetraplegia.
Adaptive devices also may help people with spinal cord injury to regain independence and improve mobility and quality of life. Such devices may include a wheelchair, electronic stimulators, assisted training with walking, neural prostheses (assistive devices that may stimulate the nerves to restore lost functions), computer adaptations, and other computer-assisted technology.
Scientists continue to investigate new ways to better understand and treat spinal cord injuries.
Much of this research is conducted or funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). NINDS is a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the leading supporter of biomedical research in the world. Other NIH components, as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs, other Federal agencies, research institutions, and voluntary health organizations, also fund and conduct basic to clinical research related to improvement of function in paralyzed individuals.
The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Technologies® (BRAIN) Initiative brings together multiple federal agencies and private organizations to develop and apply new technologies to understand how complex circuits of nerve cells enable thinking, movement control, and perception. Research funded as part of the BRAIN Initiative that has the potential to improve the outlook for SCI includes:
Basic spinal cord function research studies how the normal spinal cord develops, processes sensory information, controls movement, and generates rhythmic patterns (like walking and breathing). Basic studies using cells and animal models provide an essential foundation for developing interventions for spinal cord injury.
Research on injury mechanisms focuses on what causes immediate harm and on the cascade of helpful and harmful bodily reactions that protect from or contribute to damage in the hours and days following a spinal cord injury. This includes testing of neuroprotective interventions in laboratory animals.
Current research on SCI is focused on advancing our understanding of four key principles of spinal cord repair:
Neural engineering strategies build on decades of pioneering NINDS investment that established the field of neural prostheses. For example, researchers are developing a networked functional electrical stimulation system to restore independence through combined implants for hand function, postural control, and bowel and bladder control. NINDS has also led development of experimental brain computer interfaces that enable people to control a computer cursor or robotic arm directly from their brains.
Clinical research uses human volunteers—both those who are healthy or may have an illness or disease—to help researchers learn more about a disorder and perhaps find better ways to safely detect, treat, or prevent disease. For information about finding and participating in clinical research visit NIH Clinical Research Trials and You at http://www.nih.gov/health/clinicaltrials. Use search terms such as “spinal cord injury” and “tetraplegia” to access current and completed trials involving spinal injury.
Other centers maintain registries of people interested in participating in ongoing or future clinical research studies. A multi-site network supported by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation called the NeuroRecovery Network also accepts volunteer research participants. For more information, see http://www.christopherreeve.org/site/c.ddJFKRNoFiG/b.5399929/k.6F37/NeuroRecovery_Network.htm.
For more information on neurological disorders or research programs funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, contact the Institute's Brain Resources and Information Network (BRAIN) at:
P.O. Box 5801
Bethesda, MD 20824
Information also is available from the following organizations:
National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR)
202-401-4634; 202-245-7316 (TTY)
National Rehabilitation Information Center (NARIC)
Landover, MD 20785
301-459-5900; 800-346-2742; 301-459-5984 (TTY)
Anatomy of the spinal cord
The spinal cord is a soft, cylindrical column of tightly bundled nerve cells (neurons and glia), nerve fibers that transmit nerve signals (called axons), and blood vessels. It sends and receives information between the brain and the rest of the body. Millions of nerve cells situated in the spinal cord itself also coordinate complex patterns of movements such as rhythmic breathing and walking.
The spinal cord extends from the brain to the lower back through a canal in the center of the bones of the spine. Like the brain, the spinal cord is protected by three layers of tissue and is surrounded by the cerebrospinal fluid that acts as a cushion against shock or injury.
Inside the spinal cord is:
Other types of nerve cells sit just outside the spinal cord and relay information to the brain.
31 pairs of nerves, each of which contains thousands of axons, are divided into 4 regions having individual segments and link the spinal cord to muscles and other parts of the body:
The spinal column, which surrounds and protects the spinal cord, is made up of 33 rings of bone (called vertebrae), pads of semi-rigid cartilage (called discs), and narrow spaces called foramen that act as passages for spinal nerves to travel to and from the rest of the body. These are places where the spinal cord is particularly vulnerable to direct injury.
"Spinal Cord Injury: Hope Through Research", NINDS, Publication date July 2013.
NIH Publication 13-NS-160
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NINDS health-related material is provided for information purposes only and does not necessarily represent endorsement by or an official position of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke or any other Federal agency. Advice on the treatment or care of an individual patient should be obtained through consultation with a physician who has examined that patient or is familiar with that patient's medical history.