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Updated 22 May 2015

Spinal cord injury

Spinal cord injury is often synonymous with paralysis.

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  • Spinal cord injury (SCI) occurs when a traumatic event results in damage to cells within the spinal cord or severs the nerve tracts that relay signals up and down the spinal cord.
  • The most common types of SCI include contusion and compression.
  • Severe SCI often causes paralysis and loss of sensation and reflex function below the point of injury.
  • Methods for reducing the extent of injury and for restoring function are still limited.

Description
Spinal cord injury (SCI) occurs when a traumatic event results in damage to cells within the spinal cord or severs the nerve tracts that relay signals up and down the spinal cord. The most common types of SCI include contusion (bruising of the spinal cord) and compression (caused by pressure on the spinal cord).

Other types of injuries include lacerations (severing or tearing of some nerve fibers, such as damage caused by a gun shot wound), and central cord syndrome (specific damage to the corticospinal tracts of the cervical region of the spinal cord).

Symptoms
Severe SCI often causes paralysis (loss of control over voluntary movement and muscles of the body) and loss of sensation and reflex function below the point of injury, including autonomic activity such as breathing and other activities such as bowel and bladder control.

Other symptoms such as pain or sensitivity to stimuli, muscle spasms, and sexual dysfunction may develop over time. SCI patients are also prone to develop secondary medical problems, such as bladder infections, lung infections, and bed sores.

Prognosis
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 six months after injury, but the likelihood of spontaneous recovery diminishes after six months. Rehabilitation strategies can minimize long-term disability.

Reviewed by Dr Andrew Rose-Innes, MD, Department of Neurology, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven.

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