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Spinal Cord Injuries: What Are They?

Your spinal cord is essential to your body’s functioning—here’s what happens when it’s damaged and warning signs to be aware of.

Your spinal cord is one of the most important structures in your body. It carries signals from your brain that allow you to move, feel sensations and control bodily functions. This is why an injury to the spine can be detrimental to your quality of life.

What is a spinal cord injury (SCI)?

To understand what an SCI is, it is important to be familiar with the structures in your body. Your spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that connects your brain stem to the nerves throughout your body. It’s protected by the bones, muscles and tendons that make up the spinal column.

“When it comes to spinal injuries, a spinal column injury means the bone and ligamentous structure of the spine has been damaged,” says neurosurgeon Christian Hoelscher, MD.“A spinal cord injury means the bundle of nerves underneath has been damaged.”

Damage to the spinal cord can have serious repercussions. “SCIs interrupt the connection between the brain and the body, which is why they most often result in loss of function or cognition,” adds neurosurgeon Hekmat Zarzour, MD.

What causes an SCI?

The most common cause of spinal cord damage is high-impact trauma—like a car accident or a fall. “Typically when the spinal column is injured, it will lead to compression of the spinal cord,” says Dr. Hoelscher. “But an SCI can really be any injury that has compromised the integrity of the nerve fibers running through the spinal cord.”

“Anything that puts pressure on the spinal cord can cause an SCI,” says Dr. Zarzour. “This could include conditions such as lumbar disc herniation, metastatic cancer of the spine or atherosclerosis.”

What should you watch out for?

The most common symptoms of SCIs include loss of feeling in the arms and legs, sudden rigidity or clumsiness in the hands, incontinence and pain in the neck or back.

The symptoms each person experiences depend on where and how severely the spinal cord is damaged. “The spinal cord is like a tree trunk—if it’s damaged, the nerves branching off of it can also be damaged,” says Dr. Hoelscher. There are three main locations for SCIs:

  • Cervical, or upper spine
  • Thoracic, or mid spine
  • Lumbar, or low spine

Each of these SCIs can result in loss of sensation or motor function at your level of injury and below. For instance, if you injure your neck, you may experience tingling in your fingers or loss of function in your legs, but if you injure your lower back, you will likely only experience symptoms in your legs and feet. “In addition, an SCI can cause bowel and bladder dysfunction, no matter where the injury occurs,” says Dr. Hoelscher.

SCIs can vary widely depending on the cause and location of the injury. If you’ve been injured or are concerned about back or neck pain, visit your primary care provider or neuroscience specialist for help.

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