Spinal Cord Injuries: The Basics

The spinal cord is the brain's connection to the rest of the body. It acts as a two-way communication link, allowing the brain to control the limbs and organs, while also conveying sensory information from the body and environment back to the brain.

When a spinal cord injury occurs, the brain can no longer communicate effectively with other parts of the body. Depending on the location and severity of a spinal cord injury, it may result in partial or total paralysis, as well as numbness, pain, muscle spasms and a variety of other symptoms. The symptoms of spinal cord injury may be permanent, or they may improve with time.

Common Causes of Spinal Cord Injury

While some spinal cord injuries are the result of diseases such as cancer and arthritis, a vast majority are caused by physical trauma. Motor vehicle accidents alone account for more than 40 percent of new spinal cord injuries each year. Athletic and recreational injuries are also common, especially those involving contact sports, as well as diving and trampoline accidents. Falls are the leading cause of spinal cord injury among those age 65 and older, and are responsible for about one in four spinal cord injuries overall.

Unfortunately, not all traumatic spinal cord injuries are accidental in nature - according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, about 15 percent are the result of violent crimes such as gunshots and knife wounds. Furthermore, alcohol is a factor about a quarter of all spinal cord injuries.

Preventing Traumatic Spinal Cord Injuries

While some accidents are simply unavoidable, the risk of spinal cord injury can be greatly reduced by taking a few simple precautions:

  • When traveling by car, always wear a seatbelt and make sure that children are secured in safety seats appropriate for their age and weight. Children under 12 should ride in the back seat to avoid airbag injuries.
  • Wear a helmet and appropriate safety gear when participating in sports or recreational activities.
  • Be very careful not to dive into water that is too shallow. When in doubt, go feet first.
  • Do not mix alcohol or drugs with driving, boating, snowmobiling or any other potentially dangerous activity.