Spinal cord injuries are sudden, often life-changing events that leave individuals and their loved ones searching for answers. What occurs during such an injury, what immediate action is needed and what does recovery look like? This article provides an overview of the types, causes and treatments of spinal cord injuries, alongside prevention strategies and the latest advances in research.

In Ontario, if you’ve had a spinal cord injury, hiring a lawyer isn’t just a good idea – it’s often essential. They can make sure your rights are protected and that you get the compensation that you are owed. Fosters Law is dedicated to advocating for those affected by spinal cord injuries; we believe that knowledge is a powerful tool in navigating the complexities of both the medical and legal aspects of these cases. Therefore, we strive to educate our clients about their rights, the legal process, and the medical implications of their injuries. This approach empowers our clients to make informed decisions and helps ensure the best possible outcomes for their cases.

Types of Spinal Cord Injuries

Complete vs Incomplete

Spinal cord injuries are as complex as they are devastating. They can range from minor to severe, including acute spinal cord injury, affecting different parts of the body in varying ways. There are two main types of spinal cord injuries – complete spinal cord injuries and incomplete, each carrying unique challenges and implications.

A complete injury results in total loss of sensation and movement below the site of the injury, while an incomplete injury allows for some degree of sensory or motor function below the affected area. For instance, someone with an incomplete injury might have partial feeling or movement in their legs. When a complete spinal cord injury occurs, it’s as though the body’s communication line is cut off. It results in a total loss of sensation and motor function below the level of injury, affecting not just mobility but also bodily functions such as: bowel or bladder control, sexual function, temperature regulation, blood pressure control and respiratory function.

Conversely, an incomplete injury, while still serious, leaves some degree of communication open between the brain and parts of the body below the injury. This partial preservation of motor control and sensation can offer a glimmer of hope for recovery, thanks to the body’s ability to tap into spared neural pathways and the potential for neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change and adapt by forming new connections).

Levels of Injury

Illustration of spinal cord injury

The extent of paralysis and functional loss is significantly influenced by the specific region of the spinal cord where the injury occurred, indicating the level of spinal cord damage. The higher the injury on the spinal cord, the more widespread the paralysis. Determining the level of injury is a critical part of the diagnostic process and is crucial for understanding the potential for recovery and guiding treatment plans. It helps health care professionals determine the appropriate interventions to support individuals with such injuries.

Spinal cord injuries are categorized based on where they happen along the spine and how severe they are, affecting movement and sensation in different parts of the body. Injuries can occur in the neck area (cervical), further down the spine in the chest (thoracic), lower back (lumbar) or near the bottom (sacral) areas. Cervical injuries can lead to quadriplegia, also known as tetraplegia, leading to paralysis in all four limbs. Thoracic injuries might affect the torso, and lumbar injuries can cause paralysis in the legs (paraplegia). Sacral injury affects the hips and legs but often, walking is still possible.

What are the Leading Causes and Risk Factors of an SCI?

Leading Causes and Risk Factors of an SCI

Comprehending the primary causes and risk factors for spinal cord injuries is fundamental for their prevention. Accidents – like diving, motor vehicle crashes, serious falls, and acts of violence – are common culprits. However, the likelihood of injury also depends on a variety of factors, including age, gender, and lifestyle choices. Males between 16 and 30 years old, as well as individuals over 65, face a higher risk of spinal cord injuries. Certain lifestyle choices, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and physical inactivity, can also increase the risk.

Motor vehicle collisions account for a significant proportion of spinal cord injuries, making up nearly 30% of cases. Falls, another leading cause, can result in severe injuries, particularly in older individuals. Acts of violence, such as gunshot wounds and physical assaults, also contribute to spinal cord injuries. Furthermore, sports injuries – especially those involving high physical contact or risk, like hockey, skiing, football and diving – are often linked to these injuries.

Particular lifestyle choices may heighten the risk of spinal cord injuries, including cervical spinal cord injuries. For instance, alcohol consumption is linked to higher chances of injury, especially in the cervical spinal cord area. Moreover, individuals who do not use appropriate safety gear during physically demanding activities are more susceptible to injuries. Certain jobs, including construction work, nursing home care, warehouse work, truck driving, and law enforcement, also have higher rates of spinal cord injury.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of a Spinal Cord Injury?

Identifying the signs of a spinal cord injury is vital for preventing further damage and ensuring timely treatment. The symptoms of spinal cord injuries can vary significantly based on the location and severity of the injury, and may include:

  • numbness or change in sensation in hands and feet
  • paralysis or loss of movement
  • pain,
  • muscle weakness and loss of voluntary muscle movement, including in the chest, arms or legs
  • loss of bowel control or bladder control

Typical physical effects of a spinal cord injury that can occur when the signals from the brain controlling these functions are interrupted, can be:

  • Reduced lung capacity
  • Weaker cough
  • Weakened respiratory muscles
  • Changes in muscle tone
  • Changes in bone density
  • Changes in the respiratory system
  • Changes in circulatory control
  • Bowel and bladder dysfunction

Diagnostic Tests and Procedures

Diagnosing a spinal cord injury requires a thorough clinical evaluation. This includes both motor and sensory assessments to determine the severity of the injury. The ASIA (American Spinal Injury Association) Impairment Scale is a standardized neurological examination often used to test the sensory and motor levels of an injured person. Advanced imaging techniques are also crucial tools in diagnosing spinal cord injuries. Computed Tomography (CT) scans and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) provide detailed visualization of the spine, helping clinicians to assess the severity and location of the injury. Accurate diagnosis and evaluation are vital for devising effective treatment plans and aiding healthcare teams develop personalized strategies aimed at maximizing spinal cord recovery outcomes.

Treatment and Management

Spinal Cord Injury Treatment and Management

Treating and managing a spinal cord injury necessitates an integrated approach. From emergency care to surgical interventions and rehabilitation, each step is critical in helping the injured individual regain as much function and independence as possible. In the immediate aftermath of the injury or a suspected spinal cord injury, quick action is essential. Emergency care is first and foremost, with the focus on stabilization, addressing life-threatening issues and transferring the injured person to a specialized trauma unit.

During this phase, potential life-threatening issues such as autonomic dysreflexia, arrhythmias, brachycardia, hypotension, extreme pain and spasticity are addressed. The stability of the patient is crucial to prevent further neurological injury affects.

In some cases, surgical intervention may be necessary following a spinal cord injury. Decompression surgery can relieve pressure on the spinal cord, restore spinal stability, and reduce the risk of secondary injury, thus improving sensorimotor recovery.

Rehabilitation and Therapy

Rehabilitation plays a critical role in the recovery process following a spinal cord injury. By focusing on physiotherapy, occupational therapy, and the use of assistive devices, individuals can improve their quality of life and regain a degree of independence.

Physiotherapy can involve a variety of interventions including:

  • Gait training
  • Strengthening
  • Balance exercises
  • Cycling
  • Water exercises

These therapies help with spinal cord injury rehabilitation.

Occupational therapy helps individuals relearn essential skills and adapt to their new physical limitations. Both physical and occupational therapists play a crucial role in the rehabilitation process, focusing on maximizing the individual’s functional independence and quality of life.

Complications and Long-term Effects

Spinal cord injuries can lead to a wide range of physical complications as well as long-term emotional and psychological effects that may include:

  • Infections
  • Dysreflexia
  • Chronic pain
  • Loss of mobility
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Pneumonia
  • Bloodstream infections
  • Skin infections
  • Bone infections like osteomyelitis

Patients with spinal cord injuries are also at a higher risk of developing thrombosis, particularly deep vein thrombosis. Autonomic dysreflexia, a sudden and serious high blood pressure response to stimuli like pain or pressure below the injury level, is another potential complication. Chronic pain is also a common issue that can result from changes in the nervous system after a traumatic spinal cord injury.

Beyond the physical impacts, individuals may struggle to adjust to new limitations. The psychological changes can be pronounced, leading to depression, anxiety, and changes in motivation, personality, and energy levels. Additionally, inaccessibility and substance use can exacerbate these emotional and psychological effects, adding another layer of complexity to the recovery process.

Prevention Strategies

Preventing spinal cord injuries is of utmost importance. This can be achieved through accident prevention education and the use of protective gear during activities. Helmets, kneepads, and gloves can provide crucial protection during various sports and activities. Safe driving practices, fall prevention measures and reducing exposure to violence can all help to mitigate this risk as well. Wearing a seatbelt has an impact in the severity of motor vehicle accidents.

Advances in Research and Technology

Advances in Research and Technology

Despite the challenges posed by spinal cord injuries, the progress in research and technology provides hope. The Praxis Spinal Cord Institute, formerly known as the Rick Hansen Institute, is a globally recognized organization dedicated to improving the lives of people living with spinal cord injuries. Based in Canada, Praxis focuses on accelerating innovative research and applying best practices to advance the care, recovery, and inclusion of individuals with SCI. It works at the crossroads of healthcare, research, and community involvement, encouraging teamwork across different fields and places to achieve significant advances in treating and rehabilitating spinal cord injuries. The institute is key in turning scientific findings into real-world solutions to improve movement, function, and life quality for people with spinal cord injuries. It focuses on funding research, pushing for policy changes and sharing knowledge. Praxis Spinal Cord Institute leads the way in working towards a future without paralysis following a spinal cord injury.

Neural Devices and Repair

Neural devices and repair techniques are among the promising advancements in the field of spinal cord injury treatment. These technologies aim to promote neural activity and restore function in paralyzed muscles. Neural devices have already shown promise in helping individuals with spinal cord injuries to stand and even do some basic walking, signalling a significant stride in functional recovery. Researchers are developing a deeper understanding of nerve cells, spinal nerves, and brain circuits that could pave the way for innovative treatments for brain and spinal cord injuries.


Spinal cord injuries are complex and life-altering, affecting not just the individual but also their families and communities. Understanding the nature of these injuries, the risk factors and the available treatments is crucial. Equally important is the ongoing research and technological advancements that promise to improve the outcomes and quality of life for those affected. But perhaps the most crucial aspect of all is prevention. Through awareness, safety measures, and the right protective gear, we can significantly reduce the risk of these devastating injuries.

At Fosters Law, we understand how important it is for lawyers and healthcare experts to work together on spinal cord injury cases. Our method is more than just legal help; we join forces with your healthcare providers to create a detailed and complete plan. We closely collaborate with doctors, rehabilitation experts, and other medical staff to fully understand your injury, its future effects, and your medical needs. This teamwork helps us make a strong legal case that truly shows how the injury has affected your life. Our goal is to blend legal support with medical knowledge perfectly, making sure your legal case matches your health needs now and in the future. We’re dedicated to getting you the right compensation and supporting your health and recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a spinal cord injury?

A spinal cord injury (SCI) is damage to the spinal cord that affects communication between the brain and the body, leading to loss of movement and sensation below the injury. Severity varies based on the injury’s location and whether it is complete (no function below the level of injury) or incomplete (some function remains below the injury site). The spinal cord does not have to be severed for a loss of functioning to occur; even a bruise or a partial injury can lead to significant impairment.

Can people with spinal cord injuries walk again?

Whether a person with a spinal cord injury (SCI) can walk again depends on several factors, including the severity and location of the injury, as well as how quickly and effectively they receive treatment and rehabilitation. Recovery varies greatly from person to person, and some may experience improvements many months or even years after the injury, especially with ongoing therapy and support.

How long does it take to recover from a spinal cord injury?

The duration of recovery can differ greatly. Some individuals may experience progress in their condition months or possibly years post-injury, however, the most significant recovery usually happens in the first six months.

Are there treatments for spinal cord injuries?

Treatments include physiotherapy, medications to manage symptoms, and sometimes surgery to stabilize the spine. Studies and research are ongoing for different therapies and interventions.

Can someone with a spinal cord injury live a full life?

Yes, someone with a spinal cord injury (SCI) can live a full and fulfilling life. While an SCI can bring significant changes to a person’s lifestyle and require adjustments, many individuals with this type of injury go on to lead rich, meaningful lives. Advances in medical care, rehabilitation, and assistive technologies have improved the outlook for individuals with SCI, making it possible for them to continue to enjoy hobbies, travel, have families and contribute to their communities.

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