The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that carries incoming and outgoing messages between your brain and the rest of your body. When the spinal cord is injured, it can cause a bruise, a partial tear, or a complete tear (transection) in the spinal cord.
This, in turn, can disrupt the spinal cord’s ability to relay messages between brain and body, resulting in temporary or permanent loss of movement (paralysis) or sensation, or problems with breathing, digestion, or bowel, bladder and sexual function.
To understand spinal cord injury (SCI), it’s important to understand the anatomy of the spine, which consists of 33 vertebrae (bones that are stacked on top of one another to stabilize the spine and protect the spinal cord):
- 7 cervical (neck) vertebrae support the head and are numbered C1 to C7
- 12 thoracic (mid/upper back) vertebrae; this portion of the spine holds the rib cage and protects and heart and lungs. These vertebrae are numbered T1 to T12.
- 5 lumbar (lower back) vertebrae bear your body’s weight; they are numbered L1 to L5
- 5 sacral vertebrae fuse together in adulthood to form the sacrum, located within the pelvis; the sacrum connects the spine to the hipbones
- 4 coccygeal vertebrae fuse and form the coccyx (tailbone), and provide attachment for ligaments and muscles of the pelvic floor
In general, the higher in the spinal column a traumatic injury occurs, the more dysfunction a person will have. For example, an injury at C2 or C3 affects the respiratory muscles and the ability to breathe, while an injury in the lumbar vertebrae may affect nerve and muscle control to the bladder, bowel and legs.
SCI is classified according to the type of loss of movement and sensory function someone has:
- Quadriplegia: Involves loss of movement and sensation in all 4 limbs (arms and legs); it usually happens as a result of injury at T1 or above.
- Paraplegia: Involves loss of movement and sensation in the lower half of the body (right and left legs); it usually happens as a result of injuries at T1 or below
- Triplegia: Involves the loss of movement and sensation in one arm and both legs and can result from an injury at any level of the spinal cord
There are about 12,000 new cases of SCI each year, and it is more common in men and young adults. The most common sites of injury are the cervical and thoracic areas of the spine.
Injury to the vertebrae does not always mean the spinal cord has been damaged. On the other hand, damage to the spinal cord itself can happen without vertebral fractures or dislocations. That’s why it’s important to see a spinal injury specialist for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment after a spinal injury.
It’s also important to see a specialist because the symptoms of spinal injury may be similar to other conditions such as spinal tumors, infections such as meningitis, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, and degenerative diseases such as ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) or multiple sclerosis (MS).
Why Choose Cooper to Treat Spinal Cord Injury
Cooper University Health Care has an expert team of fellowship-trained and board-certified neurosurgeons and orthopaedic spine surgeons with extensive experience in diagnosing and treating spinal cord injury in adults and children. Notably:
- We are the primary referral center for treating spine trauma in South Jersey: As one of only three state-designated Level I trauma centers in New Jersey—and the busiest in the state—we have unparalleled expertise in caring for severely injured patients
- We are the only center in New Jersey that treats pediatric spine trauma: We offer today’s most advanced care for the littlest of patients
- We are involved in leading-edge spinal cord injury research: This gives our patients access to the latest knowledge and treatment advances for spinal cord injuries
- We have a team of highly qualified rehabilitation experts: Rehabilitation plays a vital role in managing spinal cord injury. With specialized SCI expertise, Cooper’s rehab team includes physical, occupational and respiratory therapists, speech-language pathologists, orthotists and recreation therapists. We also link patients with community-based rehabilitation resources tailored to their short- and long-term needs when they leave the hospital.
Causes and Risk Factors for Spinal Cord Injury
There are many causes of SCI. The most common types of injuries occur when the spine or neck is bent or compressed, which can occur as a result of:
- Birth injuries, which usually affect the cervical spine (neck area)
- Motor vehicle accidents
- Sports injuries
- Diving accidents
- Trampoline accidents
- Violence, usually penetrating injuries such as gunshots and stab wounds that pierce the spinal cord
While SCIs result from accidents and can happen to virtually anyone, certain risk factors make the risk of sustaining an SCI more likely, including:
- Gender: Nearly 80% of traumatic SCIs happen among men in the U.S., while women account for about 20% of SCIs
- Age: You’re most likely to experience an SCI if you’re between the ages of 16 and 30. Among people 65 and younger, motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of SCIs, while falls are the leading cause among people over age 65.
- Risky behavior: Playing sports without proper safety equipment, diving into shallow water, or driving unsafely can set the stage for an SCI
- Bone or joint disorders: If you have a condition such as arthritis or osteoporosis that affects your bones or joints, it increases the risk of an SCI from an otherwise minor fall or injury
Symptoms of Spinal Cord Injury
Symptoms vary depending on the severity and location of the SCI, and can vary from person to person. Symptoms may include:
- Muscle weakness or paralysis in the trunk, arms or legs
- Loss of feeling in the trunk, arms, or legs
- Muscle spasticity
- Breathing problems
- Problems with heart rate and blood pressure
- Digestive problems
- Loss of bowel and bladder function
- Sexual dysfunction
Preventing Spinal Cord Injury
The most common causes of spinal cord injury are highly preventable. Some commonsense strategies to prevent SCI include:
- When driving, always wear a seatbelt, observe the speed limit, obey traffic rules, and don’t drive while distracted or impaired
- When playing sports, wear the proper equipment and play by the rules
- Don’t dive in water less than 12 feet deep, and always check the depth if you’re not sure
- Remove fall hazards such as scatter rugs and electrical cords
- Always use handrails when using the stairs
To learn more about the services available for treating spinal cord injury at Cooper or to request an appointment, please call 800.8.COOPER (800.826.6737).
Refer a Patient
If you are a doctor who wants to refer a patient to Cooper for a spinal cord injury, please call 800.826.6737.