Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) is damage to the spinal cord that results in a loss of function such as mobility and/or feeling.
In order for the loss of function to occur, the spinal cord does not have to be completely severed. In most individuals with SCI, the spinal cord is intact, but it's the damage to it that results in the loss of functioning. SCI is very different from back injuries such as ruptured disks, spinal stenosis or pinched nerves.
Also, a person can "break their back or neck" yet not sustain a spinal cord injury if only the bones around the spinal cord (the vertebrae) are damaged, not the actual spinal cord. In these cases, the bones usually heal and the person does not experience paralysis.
The majority of people who have a spinal cord injury are young males (they have a greater tendency to indulge in risky behaviour). However, there are people from both sexes and of all ages with spinal cord damage.
The most common causes of damage to the spinal cord are traumas such as car accidents, motor bike accidents, falls, diving mishaps (particularly diving into shallow water), sports injuries and work accidents.
There are currently around 10,000 people living with a spinal cord injury in Australia, with a further 300 – 400 new cases reported every year. Around half of all new cases are people aged between 15 and 34 years old.
The effects of SCI depend on the type of injury and the level of the injury. SCI can be divided into two types of injury - complete and incomplete. A complete injury means that there is no function below the level of the injury; no sensation and no voluntary movement. Both sides of the body are equally affected. An incomplete injury means that there is some functioning below the primary level of the injury. A person with an incomplete injury may be able to move one limb more than another, may be able to feel parts of the body that cannot be moved, may have more functioning on one side of the body than the other or may even be able to walk. With the advances in acute treatment of SCI, incomplete injuries are becoming more common.
The level of injury is very helpful in predicting what parts of the body might be affected by paralysis and loss of function. Remember that in incomplete injuries there will be some variation in these prognoses.
Besides a loss of sensation or motor functioning, individuals with SCI also experience other changes. For example:
Very high injuries (C1, C2, C3) can result in a loss of many involuntary functions. For example;
Other problems which can arise for people with spinal cord injuries are: