What is a Spinal Cord Injury?

August 05,2021 |
Man in a wheelchair petting his dog

A spinal cord injury (SCI) is an injury that classifies damage to any part of the spinal cord or associated nerves. Spinal cord injuries are serious and can disrupt the signal between your body and your brain, thus resulting in a loss of movement or changes to sensation and bodily functions. To further understand the causes, risks, symptoms, and treatment options, here is a comprehensive answer to the common question: what is a spinal cord injury?

Causes of Spinal Cord Injuries

Your spine is made up of millions of cells and nerves that are bundled together to send and receive signals from the brain. These signals travel along neural pathways to reach the rest of the body and communicate a desired action. If, for any reason, these pathways are damaged or injured, the messages cannot be relayed and therefore, your body will not respond. Injuries can result from damage to the vertebrae in your spine, the ligaments, or the discs that help to absorb shock and facilitate movement.

Some of the most common causes of spinal cord injuries include motor vehicle accidents, falls or slips, gunshot wounds, knife wounds, sports injuries, and diseases like cancer or osteoporosis. Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries in the United States for younger individuals, while falls are the leading cause for those over the age of 65.

Spinal Cord Injury Risk Factors

While many spinal cord injuries result from sudden and extreme accidents, there are a few factors that can increase your risk of sustaining injury. Males are more likely to experience a spinal cord injury—females only account for 20% of traumatic spinal cord injuries in the US.

You’re also at a higher risk if you’re between the ages of 16 and 30, older than 65, engaging in risky behavior, or have a bone or joint disorder.


Reducing Your Risk of Spinal Cord Injury

The best way to reduce your risk of spinal cord injury is to make sure that you follow safety regulations for driving, always wear your seatbelt, check water levels before diving, try to prevent falls with handrails or nonslip mats, wear the proper protective gear when playing sports, and never drink and drive.


Different Types of Spinal Cord Injuries

While all spinal cord injuries are severe, there are varying degrees of mobility problems that occur depending on the location of the injury.


  • Incomplete Injury – an incomplete spinal injury is when there are still some signals that can be passed between your body and your brain, so some motor or sensory function below the affected area remains. There are varying degrees of incomplete spinal cord injuries, which depend on severity.


  • Complete Injury – a complete spinal cord injury means that there are no signals passing between the body and the brain, therefore all feeling and motor function below the site of the injury are lost.


  • Tetraplegia (Quadriplegia) – this is used to describe a person whose arms, legs, and trunk are affected by the spinal cord injury, causing a loss of function and sensation.


  • Paraplegia – this is when only the thoracic region of the body (chest and legs) is affected by the spinal cord injury. Loss of sensation and movement can vary based on the vertebra location of the injury.


    Depending on the type of spinal cord injury you’re suffering from, you may experience a loss of movement, difficulty walking, loss of control of the bladder, an inability to move your arms or legs, feelings of numbness or tingling in the extremities, unconsciousness, a headache, pain or pressure in the neck area, signs of shock, and more.

    Emergency Signs and Symptoms of a Spinal Cord Injury

    Immediately following an accident, there are a few emergency signs that you should look out for. If you notice any of these occurring in yourself, or if you notice a friend, acquaintance, or even stranger expressing these signs, call 911 immediately and follow the protocol listed in this article. Some emergency signs and symptoms of a spinal cord injury include:


  • Extreme back pain
  • Pressure in your neck, head, or back
  • Weakness, incoordination, or paralysis in any part of the body
  • Numbness
  • Tingling sensation or loss of sensation in your hands, fingers, feet, or toes
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Difficulty with balance and walking
  • Impaired breathing
  • Oddly positioned or twisted neck or back


    Head, neck, and back injuries should prompt immediate medical attention to avoid increasing the severity of the injury. Sometimes, serious injuries are not always obvious, so even if none of the above are visible, seek medical care if you have encountered an accident. Time is absolutely essential in treating this type of trauma and can directly impact the severity, longevity, and recovery of an injury.

    What to Do if You Suspect That Someone Has a Spinal Cord Injury

    If you think that someone may have been injured and are suffering from a spinal cord injury, it’s important to act fast. Never touch or move the injured person. It can be impossible to tell the extent of the damage and moving someone with a spinal cord injury can result in permanent paralysis or other serious complications. While it may be tempting to try to help them get into a more comfortable position, you need to leave that to the medical professionals. Instead, call 911 immediately and try to talk to the person affected so that they remain still.

    If possible, you can place heavy towels on either side of their head to help prevent movements. Do this carefully and do not move their head or neck to put the towels in place. If there is severe bleeding, try to stop the bleeding using basic first aid, but again, do not move the head or neck. While you may feel like you’re not providing enough help, less is more with spinal cord injuries.

    Treatment Options for Spinal Cord Injury

    Treatment for spinal cord injuries needs to be swift and done by a licensed medical professional. This may include realigning the spine, surgery, or a combination of both. Following immediate treatment, you’ll undergo varying degrees of rehabilitative care to help address the changes to your body listed below.

    Living with a Spinal Cord Injury

    Spinal cord injuries affect every aspect of your life. They lead to drastic changes in how you move throughout the day and can have lasting physical, mental, emotional, and social effects on a person. To better understand life with a spinal cord injury, here are some things that should be expected.


  • Changes to Your Bladder Control – your bladder will continue to function normally, but you may not be able to voluntarily control the muscles after a SCI. This is called neurogenic bladder and results in incontinence. It can increase your risk of developing a urinary tract infection, kidney infection, and kidney stones.


  • Altered Control of Bowel Movements – similarly, you may not be able to control your bowel movements as easily. There are certain techniques and diets that can increase your control and optimize bowel functions, which will be taught during rehabilitation.


  • Varying Skin Sensations– you may not be able to feel changes in your skin caused by injury or extreme temperatures or pressure, which increases your risk of sores. This is why it’s important that you change positions, frequently throughout the day.


  • Circulatory Problems to Monitor – those with SCI may experience low blood pressure, which can increase your risk of clots and deep vein thrombosis.


  • Potential Breathing Problems  – depending on the severity of your spinal cord injury, you may find that it’s more difficult to breathe. Make sure that you communicate this with your doctor to find the proper treatment and therapy.


  • Muscle Atrophy – lack of movement will eventually lead to muscle atrophy, which can cause spastic muscles or flaccidity. This can be combatted to a certain degree with the proper diet and rehabilitative therapies.


  • Sexual Health and Fertility – depending on the location of your SCI, you may experience a loss of sexual function and infertility.


  • Overall Outlook and Wellbeing – living with a spinal cord injury requires you to change the way you live your life. Coping with all of these changes can lead to depression, anxiety, and, in some, suicidal feelings. If you’re struggling, talk to a professional and consider joining a support group. There are still ways to live a happy, healthy life with a SCI.


To help those who have been afflicted by a spinal cord injury navigate through their lives as independently as possible, Byram Healthcare offers a wide range of urology supplies such as catheters and incontinence care. Browse our products today and have them discreetly delivered at your door—most orders ship within 2-3 days.