A spinal cord injury — damage to any part of the spinal cord or nerves at the end of the spinal canal (cauda equina) — often causes permanent changes in strength, sensation and other body functions below the site of the injury.
If you’ve recently experienced a spinal cord injury, it might seem like every aspect of your life has been affected. You might feel the effects of your injury mentally, emotionally and socially.
Many scientists are optimistic that advances in research will someday make the repair of spinal cord injuries possible. Research studies are ongoing around the world. In the meantime, treatments and rehabilitation allow many people with spinal cord injuries to lead productive, independent lives.
Your ability to control your limbs after a spinal cord injury depends on two factors: the place of the injury along your spinal cord and the severity of injury to the spinal cord.
The lowest normal part of your spinal cord is referred to as the neurological level of your injury. The severity of the injury is often called “the completeness” and is classified as either of the following:
- Complete. If all feeling (sensory) and all ability to control movement (motor function) are lost below the spinal cord injury, your injury is called complete.
- Incomplete. If you have some motor or sensory function below the affected area, your injury is called incomplete. There are varying degrees of incomplete injury.
Additionally, paralysis from a spinal cord injury may be referred to as:
- Tetraplegia. Also known as quadriplegia, this means that your arms, hands, trunk, legs and pelvic organs are all affected by your spinal cord injury.
- Paraplegia. This paralysis affects all or part of the trunk, legs and pelvic organs.
Your health care team will perform a series of tests to determine the neurological level and completeness of your injury.
Spinal cord injuries of any kind may result in one or more of the following signs and symptoms:
- Loss of movement
- Loss or altered 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
- Pain or an intense stinging sensation caused by damage to the nerve fibers in your spinal cord
- Difficulty breathing, coughing or clearing secretions from your lungs
Emergency signs and symptoms
Emergency signs and symptoms of a spinal cord injury after an accident may include:
- 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
When to see a doctor
Anyone who experiences significant trauma to his or her head or neck needs immediate medical evaluation for the possibility of a spinal injury. In fact, it’s safest to assume that trauma victims have a spinal injury until proved otherwise because:
- A serious spinal injury isn’t always immediately obvious. If it isn’t recognized, a more severe injury may occur.
- Numbness or paralysis may occur immediately or come on gradually as bleeding or swelling occurs in or around the spinal cord.
- The time between injury and treatment can be critical in determining the extent and severity of complications and the possible extent of expected recovery.
If you suspect that someone has a back or neck injury:
- Don’t move the injured person — permanent paralysis and other serious complications may result
- Call 911 or your local emergency medical assistance number
- Keep the person still
- Place heavy towels on both sides of the neck or hold the head and neck to prevent them from moving until emergency care arrives
- Provide basic first aid, such as stopping any bleeding and making the person comfortable, without moving the head or neck