Spinal cord injury
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. In general, injuries that are higher in your spinal cord produce more paralysis.
- The severity of the injury. Spinal cord injuries are classified as partial or complete, depending on how much of the cord width is damaged.
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
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, incoordination 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
- An oddly positioned or twisted neck or back
Common causes of spinal cord injury
- 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.
Although a spinal cord injury is usually the result of an unexpected accident that can happen to anyone, some groups of people have a higher risk of sustaining a spinal cord injury. These include:
- Men. Spinal cord injury affects a disproportionate amount of men.
- Young adults and seniors. People are most often injured between ages 16 and 30. But there is another peak in people older than 60. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of spinal cord injury for young people, while falls cause most injuries in older adults. However, in some cities, acts of violence — such as gunshot wounds, stabbings and assaults — are a major cause of spinal cord injury.
- People active in sports. Sports and recreational activities cause 8 percent of the 11,000 spinal cord injuries in the United States each year, although sports-related spinal cord injury is becoming less common. High-risk athletic activities include football, rugby, wrestling, gymnastics, diving, surfing, ice hockey and downhill skiing.
- People with predisposing conditions. A relatively minor injury can cause spinal cord injury in people with conditions that affect their bones or joints, such as arthritis or osteoporosis.