Spinal Cord Injuries

The spinal cord serves as the central highway for transmitting messages between the brain and the rest of the body, playing a crucial role in coordinating movement, sensation, and various bodily functions. Spinal cord injuries disrupt this communication pathway, potentially causing paralysis and loss of sensation.

In this guide, we will explore the anatomy and function of the spinal cord, the different types of spinal cord injuries, their causes, symptoms, complications, treatment options, and the vital role of physical therapy and rehabilitation in adapting to life with paralysis.

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Table of Contents

Anatomy and Function of the Spinal Cord

The spinal cord is a long, cylindrical bundle of nerves that extends from the base of the brain down to the lower back. It is protected by the vertebral column, which consists of stacked vertebrae. The spinal cord is composed of nerve fibers and nerve cells, organized into segments corresponding to the different regions of the body.

These segments are responsible for transmitting sensory information from the body to the brain and motor commands from the brain to the body, allowing for voluntary movement and reflex actions.

Types of Spinal Cord Injuries

Spinal cord injuries can be classified into two main categories: complete and incomplete. In a complete spinal cord injury, there is a total loss of sensation and motor function below the level of injury. In contrast, an incomplete spinal cord injury results in partial loss of function, with some degree of sensation and movement retained below the level of injury.

Additionally, spinal cord injuries can be further categorized based on the location of the injury along the spinal cord (cervical, thoracic, lumbar, or sacral) and the severity of neurological impairment.

Common Causes of Spinal Cord Injuries

Spinal cord injuries can occur due to various traumatic and non-traumatic causes. Traumatic injuries, such as those resulting from car accidents, falls, sports-related incidents, and acts of violence, are among the leading causes of SCIs.

Non-traumatic causes may include degenerative conditions, tumors, infections, and vascular disorders affecting the spinal cord. Understanding the underlying cause of the injury is crucial for determining the most appropriate treatment approach.

Symptoms of Spinal Cord Injuries

The symptoms of a spinal cord injury depend on the severity and location of the injury. Common symptoms may include loss of movement or sensation, muscle weakness or paralysis, pain or numbness in the affected area, changes in bowel or bladder function, and sexual dysfunction.

Spinal cord injuries

Motor Symptoms

  • Paralysis: Paralysis can affect various parts of the body depending on the level of the injury. Paralysis may be partial (paresis) or complete (paraplegia or quadriplegia), resulting in loss of voluntary muscle control and movement.
  • Muscle Weakness: Spinal cord injuries can cause muscle weakness or decreased muscle tone in the affected limbs, making it difficult to perform daily activities and maintain balance and coordination.
  • Spasticity: Spasticity refers to involuntary muscle spasms or stiffness that can occur below the level of the injury. These spasms can be painful and may interfere with mobility and functional activities.

Sensory Symptoms

  • Loss of Sensation: Spinal cord injuries can lead to loss of sensation, including touch, temperature, and proprioception (awareness of body position), below the level of the injury. This loss of sensation can affect the individual’s ability to perceive pain, pressure, and other tactile sensations.
  • Altered Sensation: Some individuals may experience abnormal sensations such as tingling, numbness, or hypersensitivity in the affected areas.

Autonomic Symptoms

  • Changes in Blood Pressure: Spinal cord injuries may disrupt the body’s ability to regulate blood pressure, leading to episodes of hypotension (low blood pressure) or autonomic dysreflexia (dangerously high blood pressure).
  • Bladder and Bowel Dysfunction: Damage to the spinal cord can impair bladder and bowel function.
  • Sexual Dysfunction: Spinal cord injuries can affect sexual function and fertility.

Respiratory Symptoms

Individuals with high-level spinal cord injuries, particularly those affecting the cervical region, may experience respiratory complications such as difficulty breathing and an increased risk of respiratory infections.


In addition to physical impairments, individuals with spinal cord injuries may experience secondary complications such as pressure ulcers, muscle contractures, respiratory problems, urinary tract infections, and psychological issues such as depression and anxiety.

  • Pressure Ulcers: Immobility and loss of sensation increase the risk of developing pressure ulcers (bedsores) on areas of the skin subjected to prolonged pressure or friction.
  • Muscle Contractures: Prolonged immobility and spasticity can lead to muscle contractures, characterized by shortening and tightening of muscles, which may result in joint deformities and reduced range of motion.
  • Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) and Pulmonary Embolism (PE): Reduced mobility and altered blood flow increase the risk of blood clots forming in the deep veins of the legs (DVT), which can potentially travel to the lungs and cause a pulmonary embolism (PE), a life-threatening condition.
  • Neurogenic Bladder and Bowel: Dysfunction of the bladder and bowel can lead to urinary tract infections, kidney damage, constipation, and bowel impaction.
  • Psychological and Emotional Issues: Spinal cord injuries can have profound psychological and emotional effects, including depression, anxiety, grief, adjustment disorders, and decreased quality of life.

Early recognition and management of complications are essential for optimizing outcomes and improving overall well-being.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Spinal Cord Injuries

The treatment of spinal cord injuries (SCIs) involves a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach aimed at stabilizing the spine, minimizing further damage, and promoting recovery and rehabilitation.

Physical therapy for spinal cord injury

Emergency Medical Care

Immediate medical attention is crucial following a spinal cord injury to prevent further damage and optimize outcomes.

Emergency responders will stabilize the patient’s spine to prevent movement that could worsen the injury. This may involve using cervical collars, backboards, or spinal braces. When spinal cord injury is suspected, individuals are frequently taken to specialized trauma centers that are equipped to deliver thorough care, encompassing neurological evaluation, monitoring, and interventions aimed at stabilizing vital signs.


Imaging studies such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are used to evaluate the extent and location of the spinal cord injury. These imaging techniques help determine the severity of the injury, identify fractures or dislocations of the vertebrae, and guide treatment decisions.

Electromyography (EMG) is a test used to assess nerve function and identify irregularities in muscle activity. EMG can help doctors diagnose nerve compression or injury.


Surgery may be necessary to stabilize the spine, decompress the spinal cord, or repair damaged tissues. Surgical procedures commonly used for spinal cord injuries include spinal fusion, laminectomy (removal of bone or tissue compressing the spinal cord), and spinal instrumentation (implantation of rods, screws, or plates to stabilize the spine).

The goal of surgery is to reduce pressure on the spinal cord, realign the spinal column, and prevent further neurological damage.


Medications may be administered to manage pain, reduce inflammation, and prevent secondary complications.

Corticosteroids are sometimes used to reduce swelling and inflammation in the spinal cord.  Other medications may be prescribed to address neuropathic pain, muscle spasms, bladder dysfunction, and other symptoms associated with spinal cord injuries.

Rehabilitation Therapies

Rehabilitation plays a crucial role in the recovery and adaptation process for individuals with spinal cord injuries.

  • Physical therapy focuses on improving strength, flexibility, balance, and coordination through targeted exercise programs.
  • Occupational therapy helps individuals develop skills and strategies to perform daily activities and regain independence.
  • Speech therapy may be utilized to address swallowing difficulties or speech impairments resulting from cervical spinal cord injuries.

Assistive Technologies

Assistive devices and adaptive technologies allow people with spinal cord injuries to enjoy greater mobility, independence, and quality of life.  Mobility aids like wheelchairs allow people to navigate their environments more easily, while assistance technologies like electronic aids to daily living (EADLs) make daily tasks easier.

Psychosocial Support

Coping with a spinal cord injury can be emotionally challenging for both patients and their families. Psychosocial support services, including counseling, support groups, and peer mentoring programs, provide valuable emotional support, guidance, and encouragement.

Addressing psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, and adjustment disorders is essential for promoting psychological well-being and enhancing overall quality of life.

Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation

Physical therapy and rehabilitation are essential components of the treatment plan for individuals with spinal cord injuries. These programs are designed to address specific impairments, improve functional abilities, and promote independence in daily activities.

Physical therapists work closely with patients to develop personalized exercise programs focused on strengthening muscles, improving flexibility, and enhancing balance and coordination.

Occupational therapists assist individuals in learning adaptive techniques and using assistive devices to perform tasks such as dressing, grooming, and household chores. Psychological support and counseling are also integral parts of rehabilitation to help patients cope with the emotional and psychological challenges associated with living with paralysis.


Spinal cord injuries can have profound and life-changing effects on individuals and their families. However, with advancements in medical care, rehabilitation techniques, and assistive technologies, many individuals with spinal cord injuries can achieve significant improvements in function and quality of life.

By combining medical interventions, rehabilitation therapies, assistive technologies, and psychosocial support, healthcare professionals strive to empower individuals to live fulfilling and meaningful lives despite the challenges posed by spinal cord injury.

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