What is Spinal Cord Injury?

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What is spinal cord injury?

Image from The Big Draw 2009
Image from The Big Draw 2009

Your relative will be in hospital because they have sustained damage or trauma to their spinal cord. This will have resulted in loss of function and may have affected sensation and mobility in their body.


The spinal cord is a major bundle of nerves carrying nerve impulses to and from the brain to the rest of the body and is protected by the spinal column, also known as vertebrae. The spinal column is made up of 33 bony rings called vertebra, the smallest vertebrae is in your neck and the largest in the lower back.

Most damage to the spinal cord is caused by trauma or physical injury, but may also be as a result of a viral infection, cysts or tumours on or near the spinal cord.


Your relative’s injury may be described as either a complete or an incomplete SCI…

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  • A complete injury means that they will have no function, sensation or voluntary movement below the level of the injury. Both sides of their body will be equally affected. This can be confusing- the medical definition of complete or incomplete relates to whether the bladder, bowel and sexual function nerves are working but in every day language completeness is as you describe. This can lead to confusion when people are able to feel or move some part of the body but not have what we require for them to be classified as incomplete.
  • An incomplete injury means there will be some function below the level of the injury. A person with an incomplete injury may be able to move one limb more than another, feel parts of the body that cannot be moved or may have more function on one side of the body than the other.

Tetraplegia
If your relative has a cervical (neck) injury, this usually results in tetraplegia (the older less-used term is quadriplegia). Tetraplegia means that all four limbs are affected and their body will be partially or fully paralysed, dependent on whether the injury is complete or incomplete. A person with a very high-level neck injury may require a ventilator to assist breathing.

Paraplegia
An SCI below the level of the neck in the thoracic or lumbar region of the spine, is known as paraplegia. This means that the injured person is likely to be paralysed, to some degree, in their chest, abdomen including bladder and bowels and legs, but will have good movement in their upper body and arms. The amount of movement in their trunk and chest will depend on the level of the injury.