Hesperian Health Guides
Chapter 23: Spinal Cord Injury
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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.
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.