Spinal Cord Injury: Definition, Types, Disability

Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) has a significant worldwide impact with incidences ranging between 10.4 and 59 spinal cord injured individuals per million inhabitants per year. This means that more than ten people in a population of one million get their spinal cord injured, every year. Moreover, there is very limited treatment available for improving the function of the spinal cord of an injured person. Despite all the advancements in medical science, Spinal Cord Injury most often disables a person permanently.

In this article, we will discuss the definition of Spinal Cord Injury, its causes, and its impact. We will also examine SCI as a disability.

Spinal Cord Injury Definition

Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) refers to the damage to any part of the spinal cord or the nerves at the end of the spinal canal. It often leads to permanent changes to strength, sensation, and other body functions below the site of the injury. The ICD-10 Code for spinal cord injury is S14. 109A.

The ability to control the limbs after a spinal cord injury depends on two factors –

  • The site of injury on the spine
  • The severity of the injury

Causes of Spinal Cord Injury

When we think of spinal cord injury we normally think of a deadly road accident or an accident caused during adventure sports etc. But, Spinal Cord Injury is not always caused due to an accident. A spinal cord injury results from damage to the vertebrae, ligaments, or discs of the spinal column, the spinal cord, or the spinal nerves. The cause of damage can be anything from an accident to disease.

The following are the common causes of Spinal Cord Injury –

  • A sudden traumatic blow to the spine that causes a fracture, dislocation of vertebrae, breaking of vertebrae.
  • Wounds (like gunshot or knife blow) that penetrate or cut through the spinal cord.
  • Swelling, inflammation, or liquid accumulation around the spinal cord due to any reason.
  • Non-traumatic spinal cord injuries may occur due to various reasons including – arthritis, cancer, infection, disk degeneration, etc.

Types of Spinal Cord Injury

Depending on the severity, Spinal Cord Injury is classified into two groups –

  • Complete – A spinal cord injury is said to be complete if all sensory feelings and the ability to control movement below the site of injury are completely lost.
  • Incomplete – A spinal cord injury is called incomplete if the sensory and motor function is not completely affected. Needless to say, there are varying degrees of incomplete spinal cord injury depending on the ability to feel and move left after the injury.

Paralysis Caused due to Spinal Cord Injury

As discussed earlier, SCI often causes permanent disability. An injury to the spinal cord or the spinal nerve paralyzes the person. The paralysis caused due to spinal cord injury can be divided into two groups –

  • Quadriplegia – Quadriplegia, also called tetraplegia, means the paralysis that affects a person’s arms and hands in addition to the trunk, legs, and pelvic organs.
  • Paraplegia – It is paralysis that affects a person’s trunk, legs, and pelvic organs.

illustration showing reflexology chart of spinal cord and the parts of body affected by spinal cord injury

Complications caused due to Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal Cord Injury is often disabling and complicated. Following is the list of most common complications caused due to spinal cord injury. An injured person can have one or more of these signs and symptoms –

  • Loss of movement – The loss may be complete or incomplete depending on the severity of the injury. In the case of quadriplegia, the loss of movement occurs for all four limbs and in the case of paraplegia, the loss of movement is for the lower limbs.
  • Altered sensation – The ability to feel the heat, cold, and touch is altered. In case of complete injury, the person cannot feel heat, cold, or touch on the skin below the site of injury. In case of incomplete injury, the ability to feel is diminished significantly.
  • Loss of control over bladder and bowel movement – In the case of Spinal Cord Injury, the control over the movement of the bowel and bladder is lost.
  • Exaggerated reflex activities or spasm – The involuntary movement increases in many cases of SCI.
  • Alteration in sexual functions – Sexual sensitivity and fertility are affected in a person with an injured spinal cord.
  • Pain, stiffness, and stinging sensation – A person with Spinal Cord Injury often feels pain in their body. They often feel stiffness in the body especially in the morning or during changing seasons. The stinging sensation is also a common occurrence.
  • Difficulty in breathing – Spinal cord injury causes issues like difficulty in breathing and coughing etc.

Seeing a Doctor in case of Spinal Cord Injury

It is imperative to see a doctor as soon as possible when anyone gets significant trauma to the head or neck. Experts say that it is safest to assume that a trauma victim has a spinal cord injury unless proven otherwise. Any delay in seeing a doctor and getting medical attention in such a situation may prove dangerous for the person.

You must know that serious spinal injury is not always immediately obvious to us. If not given proper attention the injury and related complications can get worse. Numbness and paralysis occur after spinal cord injury but it does not always come immediately. In some cases, a person becomes numb and paralyzed gradually. So, if a person does not get immediately paralyzed after a traumatic accident it does not mean that the person does not have an injury to the spinal cord.

Always remember that the gap between the injury and medical treatment is a crucial factor in deciding the extent and the severity of complications and also the possibility of recovery. Hence, one should never delay in seeing a doctor if a loved one gets into an accident that causes trauma to the head or the neck. And, while you wait for the emergency help to arrive try not to move the head or neck of the injured person; you may increase their complication or make the paralysis permanent.

Is Spinal Cord Injury considered a Disability?

Yes. As discussed earlier, Spinal Cord Injury is often disabling for the injured person. In some cases, the person gets 100% disabled and lives with life support systems. So, people with Spinal Cord Injury qualify for Social Securities and other Disability Benefits. Needless to say, the person must fulfill the criteria applicable for these benefits in their respective country.

We must say that despite the disability caused due to Spinal Cord Injury many people around the globe has achieved great success in life and are living their life to the fullest. A traumatic injury like SCI can physically disable a person and change their life in a matter of minutes but a willing person can live a fulfilling life even after such an incident.

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