A spinal cord injury — damage to any part of the spinal cord or nerves at the end of the spinal canal (cauda equina) — often causes permanent changes in strength, sensation and other body functions below the site of the injury.
If you’ve recently experienced a spinal cord injury, it might seem like every aspect of your life has been affected. You might feel the effects of your injury mentally, emotionally and socially.
Your ability to control your limbs after a 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.
Complete. If 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.
Your health care 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:
Loss of movement
Loss or altered sensation, including the ability to feel heat, cold and touch
Loss of bowel or bladder control
Exaggerated reflex activities or spasms
Changes in sexual function, sexual sensitivity and fertility
Spinal cord injuries may 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 your spine that fractures, dislocates, crushes or compresses one or more of your vertebrae. It also may result from a gunshot or knife wound that penetrates and cuts your spinal cord.
Additional damage usually occurs over days or weeks because of bleeding, swelling, inflammation and fluid accumulation in and around your spinal cord.
Common causes of spinal cord injuries
The most common causes of spinal cord injuries in the United States are:.
Motor vehicle accidents. Auto and motorcycle accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries, accounting for almost half of new spinal cord injuries each year.
Falls. A spinal cord injury after age 65 is most often caused by a fall. Overall, falls cause more than 15 percent of spinal cord injuries.
Acts of violence. Around 12 percent of spinal cord injuries result from violent encounters, often involving gunshot and knife wounds.
Sports and recreation injuries. Athletic activities, such as impact sports and diving in shallow water, cause about 10 percent of spinal cord injuries.