Spinal cord injury – damage to part of the spinal cord or the nerves at the end of the spinal canal (ponytail) – often results in permanent changes in strength, feeling, and other bodily functions below the injury site.
If you’ve recently had a spinal cord injury, every aspect of your life seems to be affected. You may feel the effects of your injury mentally, emotionally, and socially.
Illustration shows the area of the body that is affected by paraplegia and quadriplegia
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Your ability to control your limbs after a spinal cord injury depends on two factors: the location of the injury along your spinal cord and the severity of the spinal cord injury.
The lowest normal part of your spinal cord is called the neurological level of your injury. The severity of the injury is often referred to as “completeness” and is categorized as follows:
Complete. When all sensations (sensory) and all ability to control movement (motor function) are lost under the spinal cord injury, your injury is considered complete.
The anatomy of the central nervous system
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Spinal cord injuries can be caused by damage to the vertebrae, ligaments, or discs of the spine, or the spinal cord itself.
A traumatic spinal cord injury can be caused by a sudden, traumatic blow to your spine that breaks, slips, crushes, or compresses one or more of your vertebrae. It can also result from a gunshot or knife wound that penetrates and cuts the spinal cord.
While a spinal cord injury is usually the result of an accident and can happen to anyone, there are certain factors that can put you at higher risk for spinal cord injury, including:
Be a man. Spinal cord injuries affect a disproportionate number of men. In fact, women make up only about 20% of traumatic spinal cord injuries in the United States.
Be between 16 and 30 years old. You are most likely to have a traumatic spinal cord injury if you are between 16 and 30 years old. The average age at the time of the injury is 43 years.
Be over 65 years old. Falls are the cause of most injuries in the elderly.
At first, the changes in how your body works can be overwhelming. However, your rehabilitation team will help you develop the tools you need to manage the changes caused by spinal cord injuries and recommend equipment and resources to promote quality of life and independence. Commonly affected areas include:
Bladder control. Your bladder continues to hold urine from your kidneys. However, your brain may also not be able to control your bladder because the message carrier (the spinal cord) has been injured.
Changes in bladder control increase your risk of urinary tract infections. The changes can also cause kidney infections and kidney or bladder stones. During rehabilitation, you will learn new techniques to empty your bladder.
Bowel control. Although your stomach and intestines are functioning as they were before your injury, your stool control is often impaired. Eating a high-fiber diet can help regulate your bowel and teach you techniques to optimize your bowel function during rehabilitation.