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What is Spinal Cord Injury?

In Brief.  A break in the back or neck can sever all or some of the nerves in the spinal column.  The higher the break the more complex the damage. Open this link to examine an illustrative Spinal Cord Dermatome Image.

The Spinal Cord's Function.  The spinal cord, made up of thousands of nerves is sometimes known as the ‘information super highway’ and carries messages from the brain to every part of the body and transmits messages (e.g. of sensation, touch, temperature etc) back to the brain from each part of the body.  It also coordinates complex actions such as walking, bladder and bowel management.

Illustrative Cause and Effects of SCI Spinal cord injury can result from damage to the vertebrae, ligaments or disks of the spinal column or to the spinal cord itself. A traumatic spinal cord injury may stem from a sudden, traumatic blow to the spine that fractures, dislocates, crushes or compresses one or more of the vertebrae. It may also result from a gunshot or knife wound that penetrates and cuts the spinal cord. Additional damage usually occurs over days or weeks because of bleeding, swelling, inflammation and fluid accumulation in and around the spinal cord. A non-traumatic spinal cord injury may be caused by arthritis, cancer, inflammation, infections, or disk degeneration of the spine.

Definitions.  Those individuals who break their backs, the lower part of the spine suffer paraplegia, paralysis of the trunk and legs.  Those who break their necks suffer tetraplegia which means paraplegia + paralysis of the arms and hands.

Complete or Incomplete.  Breaks or lesions can be complete or incomplete (partial) which means the spinal cord is only partially severed and the effects are therefore partial.   An individual who suffers a complete spinal cord injury will experience complete loss of voluntary function below the lesion.  All cases of spinal cord injury are unique.  Two apparently similar SCI may lead to different consequent impairments.

Details of Spinal Cord Injury in the United Kingdom

  1. There is no Government funding for research into Spinal Cord Paralysis.
  2. Every week thirteen unfortunate individuals suffer spinal cord injuries which result in partial or complete spinal cord paralysis.
  3. There are approximately 40,000 people living with tetraplegia and paraplegia in the UK.
  4. SCI can happen to the young and old and knows no bounds, in sex, life style or age.  However, young active people often succumb to SCI, although in children it is relatively rare.
  5. Common scenarios in which SCI occurs:
    • Domestic and industrial incidents especially amongst builders
    • Horse riding
    • Medical conditions and disease
    • Sports parachuting
    • Road traffic (especially motorcycle) accidents
    • Rugby especially amongst forwards playing in scrums
    • Skiing and snow-boarding
    • Swimming and particularly diving
  6. There is currently no known procedure to repair damaged or severed spinal cord.
  7. Because of advances in medicine and research, those who sustain a SCI can expect to live a full life into old age.

Living with a Spinal Cord Injury - very useful information booklet which was created by Queen Elizabeth National Spinal
Injuries Unit, Glasgow.