Did you know that Spinal cord injuries occur in approximately 12,000 to 15,000 people per year in the U.S.? About 10,000 of these people are permanently paralyzed, and many of the rest die as a result of their injuries. Most spinal cord trauma occurs to young, healthy individuals. Males between 15 and 35 years old are most commonly affected.

A Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) is damage to the spinal cord that results in a loss of function such as mobility or feeling. The spinal cord does not have to be severed in order for a loss of functioning to occur. In fact, in most people with SCI, the spinal cord is intact, but the damage to it results in loss of functioning. SCI is very different from back injuries such as ruptured disks, spinal stenosis or pinched nerves.

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, but the spinal cord is not affected. In these situations, the individual may not experience paralysis after the bones are stabilized.

The types of disability associated with SCI vary greatly depending on the severity of the injury, the segment of the spinal cord at which the injury occurs, and which nerve fibers are damaged. Most people with SCI regain some functions between a week and 6 months after injury, but the likelihood of spontaneous recovery diminishes after 6 months. Rehabilitation strategies can minimize long-term disability.

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 prognosis.

Besides a loss of sensation or motor functioning, individuals with SCI also experience other changes. For example, they may experience dysfunction of the bowel and bladder,. Men with SCI may have their fertility affected, while women's fertility is generally not affected.

Other effects of SCI may include low blood pressure, inability to regulate blood pressure effectively, reduced control of body temperature, inability to sweat below the level of injury, and chronic pain.

At Risk Activities:

Motor vehicle accidents (44.5%) are the major cause of SCI in the United States.

Falls (18.1%) are most common in persons aged 45 years or older.

Violence (16.6%) is the most common cause of SCI in some urban settings in the United States, with a trend showing a slight decrease in violence as a cause of SCI.

Sports injuries (12.7%) cause many cases of SCI. Diving is the sport in which SCI occurs most commonly.

Other causes of SCI include the following:

Vascular disorders
Infectious conditions
Developmental disorders

Incidence of traumatic SCI in the United States is 30-60 cases per million population. Some sources cite 8 cases per 10,000 population/year. Figures on estimated prevalence vary from approximately 183,000 to 230,000 cases in the United States, the equivalent of 700-900 cases per million population.

A Spinal Cord Injury often provokes a profound emotional response in the patient, family members and friends. Denial, depression, a feeling of hopelessness, and fear are normal and usual reactions. No single response is either expected or unexpected.

A lack of understanding of what's in store, the unknown, and what's next should be met by thoughtful, straightforward, and frequent discussions between physician, nurse, patient and family. An inability to work, tend to business affairs, care for one's family and interact with friends in the usual manner, all contribute to emotional distress. Thorough explanations and the plans for future may bring emotional relief as the patient focuses on the treatment ahead and the prospect of rehabilitation and recovery.

Family members or loved ones may have questions about alternative methods of treatment. It is best to speak directly with physicians regarding specific medical questions. Family members or loved ones should discuss any problems or reactions they may have. Nurses and other health professionals understand the complexity of emotions and special ongoing needs of those living with a spinal cord injury. They also will spend much time with patients, become their confidants and can be very helpful in their emotional support.

Links to Where You Can Learn More

National Spinal Cord Injury Association

Spinal Cord Injury Resource Center


Foundation for Spinal Cord Injury Prevention, Care and Cure

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