What Is a Spinal Cord Injury?
The spinal cord is a dense bundle of nerves protected by the vertebrae. It begins in the neck and ends in the lower back, with nerve roots extending down through the tailbone. Because the brain communicates to the body through the spinal cord, injury to the spinal cord or its nerve roots can affect the ability to move muscles or feel things, and/or the brain’s ability to control involuntary body functions. The location and severity of the spinal cord injury (SCI) generally determines what and how much function is lost, and whether some recovery is possible. SCIs can be caused by
- Vehicular accidents
- Acts of violence
- Sports/recreational accidents
Young men account for most new SCI diagnoses.
Symptoms vary depending on the type of SCI, which is categorized according to location and severity. Those with incomplete SCIs have some motor or sensory control below the level of injury, while those with complete SCIs have no motor or sensory control below the level of injury. SCI symptoms might include:
- Muscle spasms — These usually temporary, sometimes-painful contractions of the muscle are involuntary.
- Incontinence — Nerve damage can lead to the inability to control urine or feces.
- Reduced sexual function and/or fertility — Men with complete upper SCIs are usually unable to achieve a psychogenic erection (from thoughts), but men with complete lower SCIs usually can. Women may experience slower or less lubrication and may not achieve orgasm. Most men with SCIs can no longer ejaculate, but women with SCIs may still become pregnant.
- Nerve-related pain or stinging — Nerve damage can lead to nerve pain.
- Respiratory issues — Injuries below the diaphragm can impact the abdominal and intercostal muscles, making it hard to breathe or cough.
- Loss of feeling — In addition to losing some ability to feel touch, some with SCIs are unable to feel sensations such as heat or cold.
- Loss of muscle tone — Unused muscles become weak and waste away.
There is no cure for SCIs, but patients work with specialists to help prevent further damage. Some patients can regain significant function through rehabilitation with the help of specialists.
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