Spinal Cord Injury: What is it and what resources and research are available?

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) at the National Institutes of Health, a spinal cord injury (SCI) is “damage to the tight bundle of cells and nerves that sends and receives signals from the brain to and from the rest of the body.” SCI may be caused “by direct injury to the spinal cord itself or from damage to the tissue and bones (vertebrae) that surround the spinal cord.” Damage from an SCI may result in temporary or permanent changes in sensation, movement, strength, and body functions below the site of the injury. According to the Mayo Clinic, a person’s ability to control their limbs after an SCI “depends on two factors: the place of the injury along the spinal cord and the severity of injury to the spinal cord.” The severity of the SCI may be called “the completeness” and is classified in two ways: A complete injury occurs when all sensory feeling and all ability to control movement (motor function) are lost below the SCI. An incomplete SCI occurs if the person has some motor or sensory function below the affected area and each person with an incomplete SCI may have a varying degree of incompleteness. Additionally, paralysis from an SCI may be referred to as tetraplegia or quadriplegia, if the arms, hands, trunk, legs, and pelvic organs are all affected by the SCI, or paraplegia if the paralysis affects all or part of the trunk, legs, and pelvic organs.

Motor vehicle accidents and catastrophic falls are the most common causes of SCI in the United States. However, anyone who experiences significant trauma to their head, neck, or back needs immediate medical evaluation for the possibility of an SCI since an injury may not always be immediately obvious and, if not recognized, may lead to a more severe SCI. Numbness or paralysis may occur immediately or may come on gradually as bleeding or swelling occurs in or around the spinal cord. It is important that a person who experiences an SCI receive treatment quickly as the time between injury and treatment can be critical in determining the extent and severity of complications and the possible extent of expected recovery.

People who survive an SCI may have medical complications, such as chronic pain, pressure injuries, and bladder and bowel dysfunction. Successful recovery may depend on a variety of things, including how well chronic conditions are handled day to day. In a recent blog post, NARIC’s Director, Mark Odum, reflected on his own injury and what it means to live beyond expectations.

Research and Resources

Currently, NIDILRR funds over 40 projects whose research and development activities focus on various aspects of spinal cord injury, including different types of interventions, employment, education, quality of life, health, and community participation. They include the SCI Model Systems and the project Aging and Participation after Spinal Cord Injury: Promoting Utilization to Enhance Community Outcomes.

The National Paralysis Resource Center, funded by the Administration for Community Living (ACL) and operated by the Christopher and Dana Reeves Foundation, helps to improve the quality of life for people with paralysis through grants, information, and advocacy. The Center provides comprehensive information and navigation for people living with SCI, paralysis, and mobility disabilities and their families.

The United Spinal Association is a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering people with SCI, including Veterans, to live fulfilling and successful lives. The Association provides support for people with SCI and their families, provides information on civil rights, and provides resources on various topics related to SCI.

NARIC’s information specialists searched REHABDATA and found 2,000 articles on SCI from the NIDILRR community and beyond. If you would like to learn more about TBI or would like TBI-related resources, please contact NARIC’s information specialists.

Please Note: If you witness an accident, please call 911 right away. Do not move anyone in the accident, as they may have a spinal cord injury.

About mpgarcia

I'm the Bilingual Information/Media Specialist at NARIC.
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