Most spinal cord injury causes permanent disability or loss of movement (paralysis) and sensation below the site of the injury. Paralysis that involves the majority of the body, including the arms and legs, is called quadriplegia or tetraplegia. When a spinal cord injury affects only the lower body, the condition is called paraplegia.
Spinal cord injury symptoms depend on two factors: The location of the injury and the severity of the injury.
In general, injuries that are higher in your spinal cord produce more paralysis. For example, a spinal cord injury at the neck level may cause paralysis in both arms and legs and make it impossible to breathe without a respirator, while a lower injury may affect only your legs and lower parts of your body.
Spinal cord injuries are classified as partial or complete, depending on how much of the cord width is damaged.
In a partial spinal cord injury, which may also be called an incomplete injury, the spinal cord is able to convey some messages to or from your brain. So people with partial spinal cord injury retain some sensation and possibly some motor function below the affected area.
A complete spinal cord injury is defined by total or near-total loss of motor function and sensation below the area of injury. However, even in a complete injury, the spinal cord is almost never completely cut in half. Doctors use the term "complete" to describe a large amount of damage to the spinal cord. It's a key distinction because many people with partial spinal cord injuries are able to experience significant recovery, while those with complete injuries are not.
Spinal cord injuries of any kind may result in one or more of the following signs and symptoms: Pain or an intense stinging sensation caused by damage to the nerve fibers in your spinal cord, Loss of movement, Loss of sensation (including the ability to feel heat, cold and touch), Loss of bowel or bladder control, Exaggerated reflex activities or spasms, Changes in sexual function, sexual sensitivity and fertility, Difficulty breathing, coughing or clearing secretions from your lungs
Emergency signs and symptoms of spinal cord injury after a head injury or accident may include: Fading in and out of consciousness, Extreme back pain or pressure in your neck, head or back, Weakness, lack of coordination or paralysis in any part of your body, Numbness (tingling or loss of sensation in your hands, fingers, feet or toes), Loss of bladder or bowel control, Difficulty with balance and walking, Impaired breathing after injury, and An oddly positioned or twisted neck or back
A traumatic spinal cord injury may stem from a sudden, traumatic blow to your spine that fractures, dislocates, crushes or compresses one or more of your vertebrae. It may also result from a gunshot or knife wound that penetrates and cuts your spinal cord. Additional damage usually occurs over days or weeks because of bleeding, swelling, inflammation and fluid accumulation in and around your spinal cord.
Non-traumatic spinal cord injury may be caused by arthritis, cancer, blood vessel problems or bleeding, inflammation or infections, or disk degeneration of the spine.
Whether the cause is traumatic or non-traumatic, the damage affects the nerve fibers passing through the injured area and may impair part or all of your corresponding muscles and nerves below the injury site. Spinal injuries occur most frequently in the neck (cervical) and lower back (thoracic and lumbar) areas. A thoracic or lumbar injury can affect leg, bowel and bladder control, and sexual function. A cervical injury may affect breathing as well as movements of your upper and lower limbs.
The spinal cord ends at the lower border of the first vertebra in your lower back — known as a lumbar vertebra. So injuries below this vertebra actually don't involve the spinal cord. However, an injury to this part of your back or pelvis may damage nerve roots in the area and may cause some loss of function in the legs, as well as difficulty with bowel and bladder control and sexual function.
The most common causes of spinal cord injury in the U.S. include:
Motor vehicle accidents. Auto and motorcycle accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries, accounting for almost 50 percent of new spinal cord injuries each year.
Acts of violence. About 15 percent of spinal cord injuries result from violent encounters, often involving gunshot and knife wounds.
Falls. Spinal cord injury after age 65 is most often caused by a fall. Overall, falls make up approximately 22 percent of spinal cord injuries.
Sports and recreation injuries. Athletic activities such as impact sports and diving in shallow water cause about 8 percent of spinal cord injuries.
Diseases. Cancer, infections, arthritis and inflammation of the spinal cord also cause spinal cord injuries each year.
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