Acute spinal cord injury

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A spinal cord injury damages the spinal cord itself or nearby tissues and bones. Depending on the severity of the injury, you may lose function or mobility in different parts of your body. Treatments include surgery, medication and physical therapy. A newer approach looks to tap working nerves.

The spinal cord relays messages between the brain and the rest of the body. Layers of tissue called meninges and a column of vertebrae (spinal bones) surround and protect the spinal cord. Most spinal cord injuries come from a sudden, traumatic blow to the vertebrae. The fractured (broken) bones then damage the spinal cord and its nerves. In rare cases, an injury can completely sever, or split, the spinal cord.


Spinal cord injury symptoms depend on the type (complete or incomplete) and location of the damage. Get immediate medical attention if you notice any of the following issues after an injury:

Weakness in the arms and or legs.

Decreased sensation in the arms and or legs.

Loss of bladder or bowel control.

Severe pain or pressure in the neck or back.

Unusual lumps along the spine.

Difficulty breathing.


Spinal cord injuries can result from damage to the vertebrae, ligaments or disks of the spinal column or to the spinal cord itself.

A traumatic spinal cord injury can stem from a sudden, traumatic blow to your spine that fractures, dislocates, crushes or compresses one or more of your vertebrae. It can also result from a gunshot or knife wound that penetrates and cuts your spinal cord.

Additional damage usually occurs over days or weeks because of bleeding, swelling, inflammation and fluid accumulation in and around your spinal cord.

A nontraumatic spinal cord injury can be caused by arthritis, cancer, inflammation, infections or disk degeneration of the spine.


Motor vehicle accidents (automobiles, motorcycles, and being struck as a pedestrian)

Sports injuries.

Diving accidents.

Trampoline accidents.

Violence (gunshot or stab wounds)

Infections that form an abscess on the spinal cord.

Risk factors

Although a spinal cord injury is usually the result of an accident and can happen to anyone, certain factors can predispose you to being at higher risk of having a spinal cord injury, including:

Being male. Spinal cord injuries affect a disproportionate number of men. In fact, females account for only about 20% of traumatic spinal cord injuries in the United States.

Being between the ages of 16 and 30. More than half of spinal cord injuries occur in people in this age range.

Being 65 and older. Another spike in spinal cord injuries occurs at age 65. Falls cause most injuries in older adults.

Alcohol use. Alcohol use is involved in about 25 % of traumatic spinal cord injuries.

Engaging in risky behavior. Diving into too-shallow water or playing sports without wearing the proper safety gear or taking proper precautions can lead to spinal cord injuries. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries for people under 65.

Having certain diseases. A relatively minor injury can cause a spinal cord injury if you have another disorder that affects your joints or bones, such as osteoporosis.

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With advancements in spinal cord injury (SCI) research, people are living longer, more active lives after traumatic neck and/or back injury. But, it may come at a cost: Complications may arise many years after the initial injury.

This article reviews the most common spinal cord injury-associated diseases and disorders. Some of these complications are local, which means they affect a specific site in the body. Others are systemic complications, meaning they may become chronic disorders with widespread impact throughout your body.

It’s important to note that not everyone with SCI has these complications. While some complications are quite common, you may endure SCI and never experience other associated disorders after your initial surgical treatment.


Always wear a seatbelt when driving or riding in a motor vehicle. This is very important for children. Make sure to properly install child safety restraints in the vehicle.

Never drive a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or ride with anyone who has.

Avoid distractions while driving and pay close attention to the road. Texting and phone calls can wait. 

Keep a clean home. Slips and falls happen frequently in the home. It is important to keep the floor clear of hazards that could lead to a fall. This is especially important for the elderly as a fall can be more devastating for them. Installing handrails on staircases may also help to improve the safety of your home.

Never move someone who has a suspected spinal cord injury. Let emergency professionals evaluate the injured person. Moving someone with a spinal cord injury could further damage the spinal cord.