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Effects and the Proper Response to a Spinal Cord Injury

A spinal cord injury can be painful, and in some cases, devastating. According to estimates, there are between 250,000 and 450,000 people with spinal cord injuries in the United States. Whether you think you may have been injured, or simply want to know more about spinal cord injuries, here’s what you need to know

What Is a Spinal Cord Injury? 

What Is a Spinal Cord Injury? 

The spinal cord begins in the brainstem and ends near the bottom of the spine with the cauda equina. Injury to the cord itself or the cauda equina is considered a spinal cord injury. When the spinal cord is damaged, it can no longer effectively send and receive signals, resulting in pain and movement limitation. 

What Are the Causes of a Spinal Cord Injury? 

Trauma is the most common cause of spinal cord injury, with motor vehicle accidents being among the most common culprits. Other trauma-related causes include falls, most common among the elderly population, and sports injuries, which are more common among the younger population. 

Who Can Get a Spinal Cord Injury? 

Anyone can potentially get a spinal cord injury. However, according to statistics from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, men are much more likely to suffer spinal cord injuries than women. In fact, it is estimated that men account for as many as 90% of reported spinal cord injuries. 

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of a Spinal Cord Injury? 

Spinal cord injuries fall into two general categories, complete and incomplete. The injured individual may experience different signs and symptoms depending on the type of injury. 

Complete Spinal Cord Injury

This means that all sensory and motor function has been lost. For example, if a person is injured at the lower spine, they would not be able to feel or move any body part below that injury. Unfortunately, complete spinal cord injuries are considered more common, with around 70% of spinal cord injuries falling into this category. 

Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury

An incomplete injury means that the affected individual has some feeling or motor control below the injury site. The extent of feeling and motor control can vary depending greatly. For instance, the affected individual may lose sensation but not movement, and vice versa.  

General Signs of a Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord injuries can result in a variety of signs and symptoms, such as: 

  • Altered sensation, or lost sensation, including the sense of touch, heat, and cold
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control 
  • Loss of ability to move 
  • Spasms
  • Changes in fertility, sexual sensitivity, and sexual function
  • Difficulty breathing and coughing
  • Pain, stinging, or a pins and needles sensation 

Emergency Signs and Symptoms of a Spinal Cord Injury

Here are a few important emergency signs and symptoms of a spinal cord injury that you may experience following after an injury:

  • Extreme pain or pressure on your back, neck, or head
  • Loss of coordination, paralysis, or weakness in any part of your body
  • Tingling or pain in your extremities such as fingers, hands, feet, or toes
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Pain in your extremities
  • Difficulty with balance and walking
  • Impaired breathing after an injury 

What Should I Do if I Suspect I Have a Spinal Cord Injury?

Anyone with an injury to the head, neck, or spine should seek medical attention. Depending on the severity of the injury, emergency medical services may need to be engaged. Remember, spinal cord injury may not be immediately apparent, so it’s best to get checked out if you even suspect a spinal cord injury. 

How Can I Help if I Suspect Someone Has a Back Injury? 

If you think that someone’s back may be injured, there are a few essential things to keep in mind: 

Avoid Movement

Keep the injured person as still as possible; you should also avoid moving the injured person if at all possible. Placing objects or heavy towels on both sides of the head and neck can help keep the person still until emergency services arrive. 

Call 911

A spinal injury is an emergency, and you should call 911 as soon as possible if you suspect that someone’s spine is injured. 

Provide First Aid if Needed

Keep the person comfortable, and stop bleeding as needed. You should also avoid moving the person as much as possible. 

How Is a Spinal Cord Injury Treated?

Once the injured person is transported to the hospital (remember, this is best done by trained professionals), they will typically undergo imaging, such as a CT scan or MRI and a physical examination. Once the extent of the injury is assessed, treatment can begin. 

The treatment method for a spinal cord injury varies depending on the type of injury. In some cases, the person may need to stay in ICU before they are transitioned home with rehabilitative training. Physical therapy from a certified provider such as USA Sports Therapy is also a likely part of treatment.  

In some cases, individuals may recover sensory and motor function with rehabilitative therapy. However, this is highly dependent on the type and extent of the injury. 

How to Avoid Spinal Cord Injury? 

While accidents do happen, there are steps that you can take to avoid spinal cord injury: 

Drive Carefully

Following the speed limit, wearing a seat belt, and other precautions help avoid the risk of motor vehicle accidents in general and help reduce the risk of accident-related spinal cord injury. You should also never drink and drive. 

Dive Carefully

Make sure that you check the level of a pool before you dive in, as diving headfirst into a shallow pool may cause a head injury. 

Follow Safety Instructions

Follow safety instructions when it comes to sports and exercise. 

Take Steps to Avoid Falls

If you know that you are at risk for falls due to age or another physical condition, take steps to secure your environment. This might mean having better lighting and non-slip bath mats. 


  • Spinal cord injuries can result in loss of sensation and loss of movement.
  • The extent of damage depends on the type of injury and the injury location.
  • If you suspect a spinal cord injury, you should call 911 and avoid moving the person.
  • If you suspect a spinal cord injury in another individual, you should call 911 and avoid moving that person.
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