Spinal Cord Injuries

Spinal cord injuries are severe instances of damage to the spine which require immediate medical attention. The higher up in the spinal cord the injury occurs, the more function will be lost.


Spinal Cord Anatomy

The spinal cord and the brain make up the body’s central nervous system. The central nervous system is thought to be the most important of all body systems. The spinal cord is encased within ring-shaped bones called vertebrae. Both the spinal cord and the corresponding vertebrae are covered with a protective membrane which together form the spinal column (or backbone).

The spinal cord itself contains an array of nerve cell bodies (grey matter) and axons (white matter) running from the brain to the body with peripheral nerves exiting at openings throughout the vertebrae.

Learn more about the anatomy of the spine in our free eBook, The Simplified Guide to Spinal Cord Injuries.

The spinal cord is responsible for relaying messages from the brain to the body and then from the body back to the brain. This action is the responsibility of neurons.  

Spinal Cord Neurons

The central nervous system contains more than 100 billion neurons. Neurons are the simplest units that make up the nervous system and are similar to the makeup of any other cell within the body except for their vast potential to relay information through chemical and electrical signals. Through nerve impulses, neurons can communicate messages as far as several feet!  

There are four types of neurons:  

  1. Motor neurons: Neurons that relay messages between muscles, organs, and glands.  
  2. Sensory neurons: Neurons that send signals to the brain and spinal cord from external stimuli and internal organs.
  3. Interneurons: Neurons that relay signals between sensory and motor neurons.  
  4. Receptors: Neurons that collect information from the environment and communicate messages through the sensory neurons.

Every nerve has a specific job for feeling, sensation, and movement and varies in size and responsibility. The nerves communicate to each part of the body how and when to move, and send messages back to the brain about the current environment. Patients can experience debilitating effects when this signal is compromised. In the case of a spinal cord injury in which a portion of the tissue is severed, these neurons are unable to function properly, resulting in permanent or temporary loss of sensation and movement and/or paralysis.  

Spinal Cord Regions

The spinal column is made up of vertebrae which are cylindrical bones that encase the spinal cord. Each vertebra is named for its location within one of the four levels of the spine: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral. The higher up the spinal cord the injury occurs, the more potential areas in which function can be lost.

  • Cervical Injuries: The cervical section of the spine (C1-C7) is at the top and forms the neck. Spinal cord damage which corresponds to vertebrae within the cervical spine is the most serious and can result in loss of function in all areas below the neck, including the arms and legs. Paralysis to all four limbs is known as quadriplegia.
  • Thoracic Injuries: The thoracic section of the spine (T1-T12) forms the upper portion of the backbone. Spinal cord damage at the vertebrae corresponding to the thoracic spine typically affects the middle of the body and the legs, potentially resulting in paraplegia.
  • Lumbar Injuries: The lumbar spine (L1-L5) corresponds to the five vertebrae below the thoracic section. Spinal cord damage in the lumbar spine may lead to loss of function at or below the hips and legs.
  • Sacral Injuries (S1-S5) The sacral levels (S1-S5) form the base of the spine or tailbone. Injuries to this level could cause some loss of function at or below the hips and legs.  

When to Get Help

It is important to seek medical attention as soon as possible if a spinal cord injury is suspected. If trauma to the head or neck has occurred, it is important to not move the injured person. Numbness does not always happen immediately, so if someone has severe trauma, call 911 and let the medical professionals evaluate the injured person.  

Time is a critical factor in spinal cord injuries. The sooner the injured can be evaluated for a suspected spinal cord injury, the better.

The Simplified Guide to Spinal Cord Injuries

Know how the body is affected by an injury, you will be able to ask your doctor the right questions the first time...
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The Beginner's Guide to Caring for Someone with a Spinal Cord Injury

If you will be caring for someone with a spinal cord injury, gather as much information as you can...
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