A spinal cord injury or SCI is a complete or partial damage to the spinal cord that causes permanent changes in sensation and loss of voluntary control below the site of injury.

What makes an SCI so traumatic is the fact that it can happen to anyone at any time, and will severely affect the person’s lifestyle. It has been estimated that there are approximately 282,000 people living with SCI’s in the US, with close to 17,000 new cases of SCIs each year.

The current average age of injury is 42 years and males account for 80% of new SCI cases. The most common form of SCI with 45% of cases is an incomplete tetraplegia, while the least common is a complete tetraplegia. A complete SCI means that there is no sensation below the site of injury. On the other hand, an incomplete SCI refers to some retention in sensation in the affected areas of the body. According to a 2013 analysis of the National SCI Database, the leading causes of SCIs were automobile crashes and falls. Following these were gunshot wounds, motorcycle crashes, driving incidents, and medical/surgical complications. Altogether, this constitutes 83.1% of SCIs since 2005. Depending on the location and severity of the injury, the symptoms of SCIs can vary widely.

Standard symptoms include pain and numbness, inability to move extremities or walk, inability to feel pressure, heat or cold, muscle spasms, loss of bladder or bowel control, and difficulty breathing. There are three regions to the spine: cervical, thoracic and lumbar. Injuries to each of these areas has different effects. If the cervical area is damaged, it can be life threatening. Damage to the cervical area can affect the arms, legs, mod-body, and the ability to breathe. The higher up the injury occurs, the worse the symptoms. Damage to the thoracic spine typically affects the legs, pelvic organs and can change blood pressure. Damage to the lumbar spine can affect one or both legs, and may also cause incontinence. Paralysis of both the arms and legs is referred to as tetraplegia, while paralysis of just the legs is referred to as paraplegia.

Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for a spinal cord injury. Instead, medical professionals work at restoring what function they can and helping the individual adapt to their new way of life. On the site where a spinal cord injury is incurred, emergency personnel will immobilize the spine using a rigid neck collar and a rigid carrying board. After leaving the hospital, a patient must adapt to their new way of life, with potential limitations in motor and sensory control. For this, they may seek rehabilitation. This may include physical therapy to help strengthen muscles, assistive devices to aid with mobility and communication, occupational therapy, vocational therapy, or recreational therapy. Although there is no cure for spinal cord injuries, there are many technologies being developed which show promise for SCI victims.