What is SCI

Spinal Cord Injury

What is the Spinal Cord?

Spinal Cord vertebrae illustration

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The spine (aka backbone) is a linked column of bones running from the head down to the lower back. The spinal cord, made of soft tissue and surrounded by bones (vertebrae), extends from the base of the brain, down your back to your buttocks. The spinal cord and brain together make up the central nervous system. The spinal cord carries messages between the brain and the rest of the body. These messages from the spinal cord coordinate the body’s movement and sensation.

Each vertebra is numbered and grouped into 5 regions. Add Pic of Spinal Cord here

  1. There are 7 cervical vertebrae in the cervical region.
  2. There are 12 thoracic vertebrae in the thoracic region.
  3. There are 5 lumbar vertebrae in the lumbar region.
  4. There are 5 sacral vertebrae, which are fused as one bone and known as the sacrum, in the sacral region.
  5. There are 3 to 5 coccygeal vertebrae, which are fused as one bone and known as the coccyx (commonly known as the tailbone), in the coccygeal region.


What Are the Effects of SCI?

A spinal cord injury stops the flow of messages from the brain to below the site of the injury, which may result in a loss of function. The brain can no longer tell certain muscles to move. Feelings such as hot or cold cannot get to the brain.  The lungs, bladder, and bowel are some parts of the body that may not function the same as before the injury.  The different types and levels of SCI can affect how much someone can move, feel, and do things for themselves.

The effects of SCI depend on the type of injury and level of injury. SCI can be divided into two types of injury: complete and incomplete. The potential for recovery depends on whether the injury is complete or incomplete.

  • Complete Injury means that nearly all movement and sensation below the level of the injury is lost.
  • Incomplete Injury means that some functioning or sensation remains below the primary level of the injury. Incomplete spinal injuries differ from one person to another because the amount of damage to each person’s nerve fibers is different.

The “level” of injury refers to the lowest part of the spinal cord with normal function.  Higher level injuries affect the arms, hands, trunk, legs, and pelvic organs, while lower level injuries affect only the legs, pelvic area and trunk. These injuries can result in paralysis of all four limbs (known as quadriplegia or tetraplegia), or paralysis of the lower limbs (known as paraplegia).The closer the injury of the spinal cord is to the brain, the higher the level of injury.  Fewer parts of the body work normally when there is a higher level of injury (e.g. a person with quadriplegia has a higher level of injury).

Quadriplegics lack the ability to move their arms and legs, and some may require a ventilator to breathe. Paraplegics have an injury further down the spinal cord and experience a loss of sensation and movement in their legs and in part or all of their trunk. In many cases, there is some use of their hands or arms. Depending on the extent of the injury and whether the damage is permanent, there may be a loss of bladder and bowel control.

Besides a loss of sensation or motor functioning, individuals with SCI also experience other changes. Some effects of SCI may also include: changes in sexual functioning for some male individuals, the inability to breathe properly, 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.