Types of Spinal Cord Injuries & Their Causes

person in wheelchair

Every year, more than 17,000 people in the United States experience spinal cord injuries. Distinct and typically far more serious than back injuries, spinal cord injuries specifically affect the spinal cord, the bundle of nerves responsible for transmitting messages back and forth between the brain and the rest of the body. The spinal cord’s function is essential. If it is damaged in any way, it may be unable to properly transmit information to and from the brain. This can affect motor function and even unintentional or subconscious bodily functions like those involving the bladder and bowel.

The type of spinal cord injury will influence the symptoms it causes and the impact it has on a person’s life. Spinal cord injuries can be divided into two main categories: complete and incomplete.

Complete spinal cord injuries are the most serious because they fully terminate the brain’s ability to communicate with the areas of the body below the site of injury. Lower on the spine, complete spinal cord injuries may cause paralysis of both legs and the lower trunk (paraplegia). Higher on the spine, complete spinal cord injuries may cause paralysis of the entire body below the neck (tetraplegia or quadriplegia).

Incomplete spinal cord injuries reduce the brain’s ability to send and receive signals with the areas of the body below the location of the injury on the spine. The impact of an incomplete spinal cord injury will vary greatly depending on the extent of nerve damage and what signals are able to come through. In some cases, a person may have full sensation and limited muscle control, limited sensation and full muscle control, or muscle control on one side of the body and not the other. Nearly two-thirds of spinal cord injuries in the U.S. are classified as incomplete, thanks to medical advancements that have taught us how to properly treat and manage spinal cord trauma.

There are a few main types of incomplete spinal cord injuries that bear mentioning:

  • Anterior cord syndrome, which affects the front of the spinal cord and affects motor and sensory pathways. Some sensation or movement may be retained or regained.
  • Central cord syndrome, which affects the center of the spinal cord and damages the nerves that carry signals to and from the brain. Loss of fine motor skills, partial impairment of the legs, and loss of bladder, bowel, and sexual function may affect some patients with this injury.
  • Posterior cord syndrome, which affects the rear of the spinal cord, typically results in poor coordination. Many patients with this type of injury will be able to maintain fair to good muscle control and posture.
  • Brown-Sequard syndrome, which affects one side of the spinal cord more than the other. It is a rare type of incomplete spinal cord injury that leaves a patient partially or wholly paralyzed on one side of the body but not the other. This will vary dramatically from patient to patient.

5 Leading Causes of Spinal Cord Injuries in the U.S.

Most spinal cord injuries are caused by a sudden, forceful blow to the spine. When the vertebrae, the bones that surround and protect the spinal cord, are dislocated, compressed, crushed, or fractured, they can damage the nerves in the spinal cord. In particularly traumatic cases, such as involving wounds caused by guns or knives, these nerves may be severed completely.

The leading causes of spinal cord injuries in the United States are:

  • Traffic accidents. Car, truck, motorcycle, and other motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries in the U.S., accounting for nearly half of all new spinal cord injuries every year.
  • Falls. Falls from heights, falls involving the elderly, and slip and fall or trip and fall incidents are other leading causes of spinal cord injuries. Most spinal cord injuries that occur over the age of 65 are the result of falls.
  • Violence. An estimated 12% of spinal cord injuries are caused by violence, specifically gunshot wounds. Knife wounds can also cause spinal cord injuries.
  • Sports and recreation. Playing contact sports like football and engaging in recreational activities like diving can also cause spinal cord injuries. About 10% are attributed to sports and recreation.
  • Disease. Some medical conditions can also cause spinal cord injuries, such as cancer, osteoporosis, and arthritis.

Living with Spinal Cord Injuries

Spinal cord injuries are unpredictable. How a patient will respond to treatment and physical therapy will depend on factors like age and overall health, as well as the location and severity of the injury, but continuing improvements in medicine will have an ongoing impact on how effectively spinal cord injuries can be treated and how those with such injuries can pursue active, fulfilling lives. The cost of living with a spinal cord injury can be extreme, adding up to millions of dollars over a person’s lifetime.

Spinal cord injuries change various aspects of a person’s life and will impact their family members as well. Living with a spinal cord injury can be challenging and expensive, but patients and their families can seek support and counsel from the team at Handler, Henning & Rosenberg LLC. We have represented clients across Pennsylvania after serious workplace accidents, motor vehicle accidents, falls, and other incidents that have left them suffering from spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, severe burns, and other life-altering trauma. By holding at-fault parties accountable and seeking fair compensation, our spinal cord injury attorneys fight to help improve our clients’ lives and futures.

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