Spinal Cord Injury Center

A spinal cord injury (SCI) involves damage to the spinal cord and nerve roots. Car accidents are the leading cause of SCI, but falls, violent acts, and non-traumatic disorders may also injure the spinal cord. SCI temporarily or permanently stops or alters the ability of the brain to communicate with other parts of the body.
The spinal cord, labeled diagramParalysis is a common outcome (temporary or permanent). The most common neurological damage after an SCI is incomplete quadriplegia, which the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCISC) reports 45% of people with SCI experience. However, spinal cord injury involves much more than damage to the spinal cord. After the primary injury, a cascade of secondary events can occur, such as inflammation, that can amplify the effects of the injury. Those secondary events can also cause pain or other SCI symptoms.

The NSCISC latest figures show that approximately 17,000 new cases of SCI occur each year in the United States (this does not include those who die at the scene of an accident).

Facts about Spinal Cord Injury

  • The spinal cord does not need to be severed to cause paralysis. In fact, it is rare that the spinal cord be severed.
  • Bruising of the spinal cord can cause paralysis.
  • Insufficient blood flow to the spinal cord can damage it.
  • The severity of a spinal cord injury depends on where the spinal cord is damaged, and if the injury is complete or incomplete.

You may learn other facts and statistics about SCI in Facts and Tips about Spinal Cord Injury.

Defining Complete and Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury
Complete SCI occurs when there’s a loss of all function (motor) and feeling (sensory) below the injury level. In complete SCI, both sides of the body are equally affected.

With incomplete SCI, some function and feeling remains below the injury level. Typically, one side of the body has more function or feeling than the other side. There are different types of incomplete spinal cord injury, such as anterior cord syndrome, central cord syndrome, and Brown-Séquard syndrome.

Anterior Cord Syndrome 
The anterior spinal cord is the front section of the structure. When this part of the cord is compressed by a bone fragment, or when there is insufficient blood supply, reduced motor function (movement) and sensory loss (eg, light touch, pinprick) below the injury level may occur.

Central Cord Syndrome 
The central spinal cord is the middle area of the structure. These nerve fibers are large and exchange information between the spinal cord and the cerebral cortex (which consists of gray matter in the brain). The cerebral cortex is important to personality, interpreting sensation (feeling), and motor function. The central spinal cord is important for hand and arm function, such as fine motor control (eg, writing), although the lower body may also be affected (eg, loss of bladder control).

Brown-Séquard Syndrome 
This syndrome affects either the left or right side of the spinal cord. If the right-hand side of the spinal cord is injured, symptoms affect the right side of the body (and vice versa). It is characterized by partial loss of function or impaired function.
Spinal Levels and Areas Possibly Affected by SCIA note about interpreting the table: A complete SCI affects all spinal cord function below the injury. For example, a thoracic injury may start at the torso and arms level, but it will also affect the low back, pelvis, groin, tailbone, legs, and toes.

National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, Facts and Figures at a Glance. Birmingham, AL: University of Alabama at Birmingham, 2016. Accessed August 31, 2017.


Updated on: 09/09/17
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Anatomy of a Spinal Cord Injury

Article walks you through the anatomy of the spinal cord and the body's nerve system. Good place to start if you want to understand how a spinal cord injury affects the body.
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