About Spinal Cord Injuries (SCI)


Each year, thousands of Americans come to emergency room trauma centers across the country with devastating spinal cord injuries, often as the result of a car accident, a sports injury, military trauma or a fall. Some pass away before they reach the hospital; for the spinal cord injury survivors, recovery can vary significantly based on treatments and available resources.  Once a patient is stabilized after injury, the next question is invariably whether he or she will ever walk again.  Any way you look at it, a spinal cord injury is a scary reality to have to face. Yet, over 1 million people are dealing this debilitating condition in America, and more than a quarter of such injuries are caused by something as commonplace as a car accident.

There are approximately 17,000 new spinal cord injuries each year,
meaning 40 out of every one million people suffer such an injury.
It is estimated that 1,462,220 Americans live with a spinal cord injury.
Incomplete spinal cord injuries are more common than complete injuries,
which account for less than 40 percent of all cases.

About Spinal Cord Injuries

A person’s spinal cord runs down the middle of their back and is connected to a large bundle of nerves and vertebrae It is the main conduit that carries signals back and forth leading muscles, skin, internal organs and glands from your brain to your body.   When a person receives an injury to their spinal cord or the nerves surrounding it, then the signals are disrupted. Typically spinal cord injuries start with a blow that will fracture or dislocate the vertebrae, which are the bone disks that make up your spine.  Although most spinal cord injuries do not cut through the spinal cord, usually they cause damage when pieces of the vertebrae tear into cord tissue or push/press down on the nerve parts that are in charge of carrying the signals.

A person’s ability to control their limbs after spinal cord injury depends on two factors: the place of the injury along your spinal cord and the severity of injury to the spinal cord.

The lowest part of your spinal cord that functions normally after injury is referred to as the neurological level of your injury. The severity of spinal cord injuries are often referred to as “completeness” and can classified by these conditions:

  • Complete. If almost all feeling (sensory) and all ability to control movement (motor function) are lost below the spinal cord injury, your injury is called complete.
  • Incomplete. If you have some motor or sensory function below the affected area, your injury is called incomplete. There are varying degrees of incomplete injury.


[In this diagram: Red equals no function, Orange equals partial function]

Additionally, paralysis from a spinal cord injury may be referred to as:

  • Tetraplegia. Also known as quadriplegia, this means your arms, hands, trunk, legs and pelvic organs are all affected by your spinal cord injury.
  • Paraplegia. This paralysis affects all or part of the trunk, legs and pelvic organs   

With a complete spinal cord injury, the cord cannot send signals below the level of the injury. As a result, you can become paralyzed in parts of the body below the injury.   With an incomplete injury, you can have some movement, feeling and sensation below the injury.   

This is a very serious injury, someone who has suffered a recent spinal injury, it may feel as though that every aspect of life has been changed and affected.   

Spinal Cord Injury Levels & Classification  

Some doctors created a committee called the American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) Classification system called ASIA A, B, C, D or E. The ASIA impairment scale describes a person’s functional impairment as a result of their spinal cord injury.     

A- Complete No motor or sensory function in the lowest sacral segment below the neurological injury (S4-S5)

B- Incomplete Sensory function below neurologic level and in S4-S5, no motor function below neurologic level

C- Incomplete Motor function is preserved below neurologic level and more than half of the key muscle groups below neurologic level have a muscle grade less than 3.

D- Incomplete Motor function is preserved below neurologic level and at least half of the key muscle groups below neurologic level have a muscle grade 3.

E- Normal Sensory and motor function is normal


If someone get injured or experiences an accident to the spine, doctors and medical team will perform a series of tests to determine the neurological level and completeness of your injury.

Spinal cord injuries of any kind may result in one or more of the following signs and symptoms:

  1. Loss of movement
  2. Loss of sensation, including the ability to feel heat, cold and touch
  3. Loss of bowel and bladder control
  4. Exaggerated reflex activities or spasms
  5. Changes in sexual function, sexual sensitivity and fertility
  6. Pain or an intense stinging sensation caused by damage to the nerve fibers in your spinal cord
  7. Difficulty breathing, coughing or clearing secretions from your lungs

Many doctors and scientists are optimistically working on advances in research to find a way to repair damaged spinal cord injuries, but research needs more funding.    

Common causes of spinal cord injury    

spinal-cord-injury-numbersThe most common causes of spinal cord injuries in the United States are:

  1. Motor vehicle accidents. Auto and motorcycle accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries, accounting for more than 35 percent of new spinal cord injuries each year.
  2. Falls. Spinal cord injury after age 65 is most often caused by a fall. Overall, falls cause more than one-quarter of spinal cord injuries.
  3. Acts of violence. Around 15 percent of spinal cord injuries result from violent encounters, often involving gunshot and knife wounds, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center.
  4. Sports and recreation injuries. Athletic activities, such as impact sports and diving or swimming in pools, rivers, lakes or the ocean cause about 9 percent of spinal cord injuries.
  5. Diseases. Cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis and inflammation of the spinal cord also can cause spinal cord injuries.