Hesperian Health Guides

Chapter 23: Spinal Cord Injury

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HealthWiki > Disabled Village Children > Chapter 23: Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord injury usually results from an accident that breaks or severely damages the central nerve cord in the neck or back: falls from trees or mules, automobile accidents, diving accidents, bullet wounds, and other injuries. Spinal cord injury is more common in adults and older children—and in many cultures it is twice as common in men as in women.

The spinal cord is the line of nerves that comes out of the brain and runs down the backbone. From the cord, nerves go out to the whole body. Feeling and movement are controlled by messages that travel back and forth to the brain through the spinal cord. When the cord is damaged, feeling and movement in the body below the level of the injury are lost or reduced.

Level of the injury

How much of the body is affected depends on the level of the injury along the backbone. The higher the injury is, the greater the area of the body that is affected.

parts of the backbone and level of injury
The backbone consists of:
7 neck bones (cervical vertebrae)
12 upper back bones (thoracic vertebrae)
5 lower back bones (lumbar vertebrae)
5 joined hip or sacral vertebrae
Spinal cord injury of the neck causes QUADRIPLEGIA.
Spinal cord injury of the back causes PARAPLEGIA.

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  • loss of controlled movement and feeling from the neck or chest down—and to some extent the arms and hands
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  • affects urine and bowel control
  • Paralysis of chest muscles affects breathing.
  • reduced sweating and temperature control

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  • loss of controlled movement and feeling in the legs
  • Hips and part of trunk may be affected (the higher the injury the more is affected).
  • may have partial or complete loss of urine and bowel control
  • may have spasticity (muscle spasms) or be floppy in legs

Complete and incomplete injuries

When the spinal cord is damaged so completely that no nerve messages get through, the injury is said to be ‘complete’. Feeling and controlled movement below the level of the injury are completely and permanently lost. If the injury is ‘incomplete’, some feeling and movement may remain. Or feeling and controlled movement may return (partly or entirely) little by little during several months. In incomplete injuries, one side may have less feeling and movement than the other.

X-rays often do not show how complete a spinal cord injury is. Sometimes the backbone may be badly broken, yet the spinal cord damage may be minor. And sometimes (especially in children) the X-ray may show no damage to the backbone, yet the spinal cord injury may be severe or complete. Often, only time will tell how complete the injury is.

This page was updated:21 Nov 2019