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Spinal Cord Injury

The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that carries messages between the brain and the rest of the body.

Acute spinal cord injury (SCI) is due to a traumatic injury that can either result in a bruise (also called a contusion), a partial tear, or a complete tear (called a transection) in the spinal cord. About 250,000 to 400,000 individuals in the US have a spinal cord injury. About 60 percent of these cases are 30 years old or younger.

SCI results in a decreased or absence of movement, sensation, and body organ function below the level of the injury. The most common sites of injury are the cervical and thoracic areas. SCI is a common cause of permanent disability and death in children and adults.

Types of Spinal Cord Injury (SCI)

SCI can be divided into two main types of injury:

Complete Injury

Complete injury means that there is no function below the level of the injury - either sensation and movement - and both sides of the body are equally affected. Complete injuries can occur at any level of the spinal cord.

Incomplete Injury

Incomplete injury means that there is some function below the level of the injury - movement in one limb more than the other, feeling in parts of the body, or more function on one side of the body than the other. Incomplete injuries can occur at any level of the spinal cord.

Causes of Acute Spinal Cord Injury

There are many causes of SCI. The more common injuries occur when the area of the spine or neck is bent or compressed, as in the following:

  • birth injuries, which usually affect the spinal cord in the neck area
  • falls
  • motor vehicle accidents (where the person is either riding as a passenger in the car or is struck as a pedestrian)
  • sports injuries
  • diving accidents
  • trampoline accidents

Penetrating injuries that pierce the cord, such as gunshots and stab wounds may also cause damage.