Kentucky's Office for the
Americans with Disabilities Act

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Spinal Cord Injury

A spinal cord injury (SCI) usually results from an acute traumatic event to the spinal column. Each year, 12,000 to 15,000 Americans sustain spinal cord injuries. Motor vehicle accidents account for nearly half of spinal cord injuries, followed by falls and gunshot injuries. Other causes of SCI include infections, multiple sclerosis, or tumors. Because different parts of the spinal column are responsible for different body functions, the degree of loss of function depends on the level of the spine at which the injury occurs. Typically, as the point of injury to the spinal cord moves upward, the degree and extent of bodily function loss increases. Spinal cord injuries can be classified as:

  • Paraplegia: loss of function in the lower extremities due to thoracic and lumbar spine injuries.
  • Quadriplegia: loss of function in both the upper and lower extremities as a result of cervical and upper thoracic spine injuries.

A spinal cord injury can also be described as complete or incomplete:

  • Complete: no functioning nerves remain below the level of injury.
  • Incomplete: some function remains below the level of injury.

Sometimes the spinal cord is only bruised or swollen after the initial injury. As the swelling goes down, the nerves may begin to work again. The longer there is no improvement, the less likely it is that there will be any improvement. Conversely, if an individual shows some sign of recovery, the likelihood of improvement increases, but there are no guarantees that more function will return. Some individuals have involuntary movements, such as twitching or shaking. These movements are called spasms, and are not a sign of recovery. A spasm occurs when a wrong message from the nerve causes the muscle to move. The person cannot control this movement.

In addition to movement and feeling, a spinal cord injury affects other body functions. The lungs, bowel, and bladder may not work the same as before the injury. There may also be changes in sexual function. During rehabilitation, the rehabilitation team will help the person adjust and adapt to a new lifestyle. The goal of rehabilitation, therefore, is to help the person become independent.

(From: "Those of Us DisLabeled: A Guide to Awareness and Understanding", University of Kentucky Human Development Institute, Cooperative Extension Service)

For More Information:

Contact: The National Spinal Cord Injury Association


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