Spinal Cord Injury

What is Spinal Cord Injury Trauma?

Spinal cord injuries occur when the spinal cord is damaged by trauma rather than disease. A spinal cord injury, or SCI, is often sudden and unexpected and can happen to anyone, young or old, male or female, of any race, religion, or socioeconomic status.

Approximately 11,000 people in the U.S. sustain a spinal cord injury each year and nearly 200,000 Americans currently live with a permanent disability related to SCI trauma. The effects of a spinal cord trauma depend on the severity and location of the injury and can result from motor vehicle accidents, aircraft accidents, falls, sports injuries, industrial accidents, and assault, among many others. Accounting for over 50 percent of spinal cord injuries are accidents involving cars, motorcycles, and trucks.

Approximately 99 percent of traumatic spinal cord injuries lead to permanent disability, including paralysis and loss of control of one’s own body and independence. A traumatic spinal cord injury will also have a deep impact on a survivor’s family and community. With rehabilitation and support, a spinal cord injury survivor can learn to navigate the world once more, reconditioning the body and mind to compensate for paralyzed limbs and deteriorated strength.

The Spinal Cord and Vertebrae

The spinal cord runs from the base of the brain to the waist and is composed of long nerve fibers that carry messages to and from the brain and the rest of the body. The brain and the spinal cord make up the Central Nervous System and are surrounded by the 33 vertebrae that make up the spinal column, or “backbone.”

The vertebrae can be crushed, fractured, dislocated, or compressed during a traumatic event. This damage can affect the nerve fibers passing through the injured area, impairing all or part of the muscles and organs these nerves connect with, as well as the nerves that exist lower on the spinal column.

Each vertebra is named according to its location. The vertebrae in the neck area are called the Cervical Vertebrae. Spinal cord injuries that occur in this area can cause loss of function in the arms and legs, resulting in quadriplegia/tetraplegia. Cervical injuries may also affect breathing, requiring breathing aids such as diaphragmatic pacemakers or mechanical ventilators.

The vertebrae in the chest and ribs are called Thoracic Vertebrae. Injuries in this region often impact the chest and legs, resulting in paraplegia.

The vertebrae found in the lower back region, running between the thoracic vertebrae and the pelvis, are called Lumbar Vertebrae. Injuries to the Lumbar area may result in some loss of function in the hips and legs. Thoracic and Lumbar injuries may also affect bowel and bladder control, as well as sexual function.


Spinal Cord Injury Definition: The Mayo Clinic