Spinal Cord Injury
What is an acute spinal cord injury (SCI)?
The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that carries signals between the brain and the
rest of the body. Acute spinal cord injury (SCI) is due to a traumatic injury. The
injury may cause a bruise (contusion), a partial tear, or a complete tear (transection)
in the spinal cord. SCI is more common in men and young adults.
SCI results in a decrease or loss of movement, feeling, and 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.
The spine has 33 vertebrae. They are:
7 cervical (neck)
12 thoracic (upper back)
5 lumbar (lower back)
5 sacral* (sacrum, located in the pelvis)
4 coccygeal* (coccyx, located in the pelvis)
* By adulthood, the 5 sacral vertebrae fuse to form 1 bone. The 4 coccygeal vertebrae
fuse to form 1 bone.
These vertebrae form the spine and protect the spinal cord. In general, the higher
up the spine that the injury happens, the more severe the symptoms. Injury to the
vertebrae does not always mean the spinal cord has been damaged. And damage to the
spinal cord can happen without breaks or dislocations of the vertebrae.
SCI can be divided into 2 main types of injury:
Complete injury. There is no function below the level of the injury. This means no feeling or movement.
Both sides of the body are equally affected. Complete injuries can happen at any level
of the spinal cord.
Incomplete injury. There is some function below the level of the injury. This could be movement in 1
limb more than the other, feeling in parts of the body, or more function on 1 side
of the body than the other. Incomplete injuries can happen at any level of the spinal
What causes an acute spinal cord injury?
There are many causes of SCI. The more common injuries happen when the area of the
spine or neck is bent or compressed. This can be caused by:
Birth injuries, which often affect the spinal cord in the neck area
Car accidents, either when a person is a passenger in a car or is hit by a car
Violence, such as injuries that pierce the spinal cord, including gunshots and stab
Who is at risk for an acute spinal cord injury?
Age is the main risk factor linked to spinal cord injuries. Young adult males (between
the ages of 15 and 35) and older adults are at the highest risk.
SCI risk peaks during young adulthood. Young adults tend to have increased risk due
to violence, motor vehicle accidents, and sports injuries. The rate of violence-related
SCIs in young adults has gone down since the 1990s.
In older adults, falls are the leading cause of SCIs. These numbers have gone up since
What are the symptoms of an acute spinal cord injury?
Symptoms vary depending on the severity and location of the SCI. At first, the person
may have spinal shock. This causes loss of feeling, muscle movement, and reflexes
below the level of injury. Spinal shock often lasts from several hours to several
weeks. As the shock lessens, other symptoms appear. This depends on the location of
For SCI, the higher up on the spinal cord, the more severe the symptoms. For example:
Injury at C2 or C3. These are the second and third vertebrae in the spinal column. This affects the respiratory
muscles and the ability to breathe.
Injury in the lumbar vertebrae. This may affect nerve and muscle control to the bladder, bowel, and legs.
SCI is classified according to a person's type of loss of motor and sensory function.
These are the main types:
Quadriplegia(quad means 4). This is loss of movement and feeling in all 4 limbs (arms and legs). It often happens
as a result of injury at T1 or above. Quadriplegia also affects the chest muscles.
Injuries at C4 or above require a mechanical breathing machine (ventilator).
Paraplegia(para here means side by side). This is loss of movement and feeling in the lower half of the body (right and left
legs). It often happens as a result of injuries at T1 or below.
Triplegia(tri means 3). This is loss of movement and feeling in 1 arm and both legs. It often results from
The most common symptoms of acute spinal cord injury may include:
Muscle weakness or paralysis in the trunk, arms, or legs
Loss of feeling in the trunk, arms, or legs
Problems with heart rate and blood pressure
Loss of bowel and bladder function
The symptoms of SCI may look like other health conditions or problems. Always talk
with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How is an acute spinal cord injury diagnosed?
SCIs are not always easy to recognize. These situations should be considered as a
possible spinal cord injury:
Head injury, especially with trauma to the face
Penetrating injuries to the spinal area
Injuries from falling from heights
Complaints of spinal pain
Weakness or a loss of feeling in the hands or feet (extremities)
Loss of urine or bowel control
If the symptoms or accident occur at home or in the community, 911 should be called.
The person should not be moved until paramedics arrive. To prevent more spinal cord
injury, the paramedics will use extreme care and allow as little movement of the spine
as possible. The injured person will be taken to an emergency room or trauma center.
The first medical care focuses on reducing any life-threatening problems such as bleeding
or breathing problems. Movement and feeling tests are done to see if a spinal cord
injury occurred. If a spinal cord injury is suspected, tests are done. These include
lab tests, X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs. These tests are used to find the location and
severity of the injury. To protect the spine, the neck and body is kept immobile.
A person with a traumatic spinal cord injury goes to an intensive care unit (ICU).
There they are watched for things such as breathing problems and heart problems. A
full neurologic exam is done as soon as possible. This is done to diagnose the exact
level and severity of the injury. These factors determine both the treatment and the
expected level of recovery.
How is an acute spinal cord injury treated?
The first treatment for SCIs depends on the location and severity of the injury. Some
people may be treated with medicines called steroids. These help reduce the swelling
in the spinal column. If the back bones (vertebrae) were moved out of position, surgery
may be used to fix them. Rehabilitation (rehab) begins during the early treatment
phase. As the person’s condition improves, a more detailed rehab program is often
The success of rehab depends on many things, including:
Level and severity of the SCI
Type and degree of resulting impairments and disabilities
The person’s overall health
The goal of SCI rehab is to help the person return to the highest level of function
and independence possible, while improving the overall quality of life physically,
emotionally, and socially. A variety of SCI treatment specialists will develop rehab
treatment plans that focus on maximizing the patient's capabilities at home and in
the community. Positive reinforcement and emotional support are used throughout rehab
to improve self-esteem and promote independence.
How do I manage an acute spinal cord injury?
SCIs impact all parts of a person's life. SCI management involves knowledge of both
the skills needed for daily living and an awareness of common long-term problems that
happen in people with paraplegia and quadriplegia.
Depending on the level of your injury, daily management skills include such things
as how to:
Cope with emotions such as fear, sadness, or anger
Use a wheelchair
Manage your bladder and bowel (if you have no control over your bladder or bowel)
Exercise, to help you regain as much movement in your arms or legs as possible
Common long-term management problems in people with SCIs include:
Emotional and financial issues linked to the disability
Urinary tract infections and kidney problems
Damage to the skin and tissue under the skin caused by pressure
Lung infections and breathing problems
Weakening of bones
Muscle and joint stiffness
There are many spinal cord injury treatment and rehab programs to help you deal with
both short and long-term SCI management. These include:
Acute rehabilitation programs
Subacute rehabilitation programs
Long-term rehabilitation programs
Transitional living programs
Vocational rehabilitation programs
Talk with your family and your rehab team about short-term and long-term goals. Your
rehab team can help you find treatment and rehab programs and local resources to help
you and your family.
What can I do to prevent an acute spinal cord injury?
The goal is to prevent injuries. The following behaviors can help prevent SCI.
Car crash injuries
Always wear seat belts.
Use the correct safety seats and restraints for children. In addition, the American
Academy of Pediatrics states that children should ride in the back seat until they
are over the age of 12.
Don’t use cell phones while driving. Enforce hands-free driving laws.
Enforce laws and educate others about impaired driving linked to alcohol and substance
abuse, including prescription medicines.
Use handrails while climbing stairs and keep floors clear of debris and hazards such
as rugs and electrical cords.
Have grab bars in bathrooms and showers to prevent slipping.
For children, use window latches and safety gates to block dangerous areas
Always assume a gun is loaded and handle it as such.
Secure all guns in a locked location away from children.
Store bullets separately from the guns.
Educate children and teens about the dangers of guns and teach them how to solve arguments
Team sport injuries
Ensure that players with the same skill levels, size, and maturity level play one
Always use correct and adequate protective gear. Damaged gear should never be used.
Use only fields and playgrounds that are well maintained and well lit.
Don’t drink alcohol when swimming.
Never dive into shallow water, whether it is a swimming pool, river, or lake.
Use clearly marked depths in swimming pools and have designated diving and no-diving
Never push or shove another person into a swimming pool or body of water.
Make sure there is a lifeguard or someone trained in water safety in the swimming
Secure the pool with fencing and a gate when it is not being used.
Recreational sports injuries
Use a correct helmet that is secured with a chin strap while bicycling, skateboarding,
roller-skating, and during any other high-risk activities such as four-wheeling or
Only use a helmet with a sticker stating that it meets the standards set by the U.S.
Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Have the CPSC sticker displayed inside
the helmet, and in a location obvious to consumers.
Trampoline injuries affect young kids. About 66% of injuries occur in children between
ages 6 and 14. And 15% of injuries are reported in children younger than 6 years old.
For children using trampolines:
Competent supervision is the key primary prevention tip for trampoline usage.
Netting constructed around the trampoline can reduce the number of falls. But it is
not a substitute for supervision.
The trampoline should be placed on ground level to prevent falls off the side and
the area should be well lit.
Acrobatic moves should be done only under the supervision of a trained professional
or with specialized equipment, such as a harness.
Trampolines should not be overcrowded.
Key points about acute spinal cord injury
Acute spinal cord injury (SCI) is due to a traumatic injury. The injury may cause
a bruise, a partial tear, or a complete tear to the spinal cord.
SCI results in a decrease or loss of movement, feeling, and body organ function below
the level of the injury.
SCI can be caused by sports injuries, car accidents, birth injuries, and violent incidents.
In general, the higher in the spinal column the injury happens, the more severe the
The immediate treatment for SCIs depends on the location and severity of the injury.
Some people may be treated with medicines, and others may have surgery.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments,
or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also
know what the side effects are.
Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that
Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewers:
- Amit Shelat, MD
- Marianne Fraser, MSN, RN