What is a spinal cord injury?

Damage to a spinal cord can happen in a second. The consequences last a lifetime.

People who sustain damage to their spinal cord, either through a traumatic injury or a disease process, can suffer lifelong paralysis and are at increased risk of many serious health complications.

More discoveries mean more lives improved

Each day, people with spinal cord injury may face hurdles most of us would find hard to imagine.

Everyday tasks can take hours to complete. People may be ready to go back to work, but a simple fear of going to the bathroom may make it impossible. Activities or holidays are thwarted because of reoccurring pressure ulcers or urinary tract infections, which can lead to long spells in hospitals.

Spinal cord injury research can dramatically improve well-being and quality of life for every person living with paralysis, and Stoke Mandeville Spinal Research promotes investigations that lead to life-changing discoveries, greater understanding of the causes of complications and the development of new technologies to assist people with spinal cord injury.

Types of injury

Whilst the most common cause of traumatic injury is road traffic accidents, sadly many every day activities can go horribly wrong and change lives forever, such as a simple fall, or an accident involving a sport you love.

Your spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that runs down the middle of your back. It’s protected by your spinal column or ‘backbone’, which is made up of vertebrae.

The spinal cord carries signals back and forth between your body and your brain, and if the cord is damaged, these signals become disrupted.

A spinal cord injury usually begins with a blow that fractures or dislocates your vertebrae (the bone discs that make up your spine).

Most injuries don’t actually cut through the spinal cord. Instead, they cause damage when pieces of vertebrae tear into cord tissue or press down on the nerve parts that carry signals.

You may hear the terms ‘complete’ or ‘incomplete’ when discussing spinal cord injuries. This refers to the severity of the injury.

  • With a complete spinal cord injury, the cord can’t send any signals below the level of injury. As a result, you are paralysed below the injury.
  • With an incomplete injury, you have some movement and sensation below the injury.

Immediate treatment after a spinal cord injury can reduce long-term effects and research continues into this area of medical intervention.

Levels of Injury

Vertebrae are grouped into sections: the higher the level of injury to the spinal cord, the more dysfunction can occur.

  • High Cervical Nerves (C1-C4)
    • Damage to this part of the spinal cord is the most severe. Paralysis will occur to the arms, trunk and legs (known as Tetraplegia) and breathing, bladder and bowel function will be impaired.
  • Low-Cervical Nerves (C5-C8)
    • Nerve damage here will affect the corresponding nerves that control arms and hands. A person with this level of injury may be able to breathe on their own and speak normally.
  • Thoracic Nerves (T1 – T12)
    • This is damage to nerves corresponding to muscles in the chest, mid back and abdomen and causes paralysis to the legs (known as Paraplegia).
  • Lumber Nerves (L1 – L5)
    • Injuries here result in some loss of function in the hips and legs, and also affect bowel and bladder function. The injured person may need a wheelchair or may walk with braces.
  • Sacral Nerves (S1 – S5)
    • Injury here results in some loss of function in the hips and legs, and will require special equipment to manage bladder and bowel function, although the injured person will most likely be able to walk.
" My car accident in 2008 left me paralysed from the waist down as my T10 - T12 vertebrae were crushed. Sport was a huge part of my rehabilitation and I don't let my wheelchair stop me achieving my goals. "

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