Spinal Cord Trauma

What Is It?

The spinal cord carries nerve signals from the brain to the rest of the body. Trauma to the spinal cord can result from a number of injuries: about half occur after motor vehicle accidents; 25% after falls; 15% after a gunshot wound or other violence; and 10% after sports-related injuries. More than 80% of cases of spinal cord trauma occur in people between the ages of 15 and 35, and approximately 80% of those affected are male. Up to one-quarter of cases occur after significant alcohol ingestion. Pre-existing disease in the spine can make spinal cord trauma more likely. For example, complications of rheumatoid arthritis or osteoporosis may lead to spinal cord damage.

Most spinal cord injuries occur in the area of the neck called the cervical region. Trauma can result from bruising to the spinal cord itself, loss of blood flow to the cord or cuts in the cord. Spinal cord injuries are serious and can cause diminished strength, coordination and sensation as well as other functions, such as bladder control.


The symptoms of spinal cord trauma vary and depend on the location and severity of the injury. Complete spinal cord trauma -- an injury that results in a total loss of sensation or the ability to move -- occurs at about the same level as the injury. For example, a person injured in the middle of the neck will lack feeling and be unable to move below the middle of the neck. Almost one-half of all spinal cord injuries are complete. Complete injuries that take place in the upper neck can compromise breathing ability and require the person to use a mechanical ventilator. Injuries to the spinal cord in the neck or upper back may cause abnormalities in blood pressure, sweating and in regulating body temperature. In addition, loss of bladder and bowel control and increased muscle tone in the extremities (spasticity) may accompany spinal cord injury. Some of these symptoms may not be apparent immediately after the injury.

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