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Spinal cord injury and pain

Spinal cord injury is damage to the information superhighway between the brain and the rest of the body that runs down the back or spine.

Damage to the spinal cord may be from an injury or a medical condition, and can cause paralysis.

The spinal cord

The spinal cord is the major bundle of nerves carrying nerve impulses to and from the brain to the rest of the body. Rings of bone, called vertebrae, surround the spinal cord. These bones constitute the spinal column or backbones.

Spinal cord injury is damage to the spinal cord as a result of a direct trauma to the spinal cord itself or indirectly as a result of damage to the bones and soft tissues and vessels surrounding the spinal cord.

Spinal cord damage results in a loss of function, such as mobility or feeling. In most people who have spinal cord injury, the spinal cord is intact. Spinal cord injury is not the same as back injury, which may result from pinched nerves or ruptured disks. Even when a person sustains a break in a vertebra or vertebrae, there may not be any spinal cord injury if the spinal cord itself is not affected.

Causes of spinal cord injury

Spinal cord injuries may result from falls, diseases like polio or spina bifida - a disorder involving incomplete development of the brain, spinal cord, and/or their protective coverings - motor vehicle accidents, sports injuries, industrial accidents, and assaults, among other causes. If the spine is weak because of another condition, such as arthritis, minor injuries can cause spinal cord trauma.

Types of spinal cord injury

There are two kinds of spinal cord injury, complete and incomplete. In a complete injury, a person loses all ability to feel and voluntarily move below the level of the injury. In an incomplete injury, there is some functioning below the level of the injury.

What tests are used to determine the extent of spinal cord injury?

  • Neurological examinations
  • CT scan or MRI of the spine
  • Spine X-rays

How is a spinal cord injury treated?

A spinal cord injury requires immediate treatment if long-term effects are to be avoided. Corticosteroid drugs such as dexamethasone or methylprednisolone are used to reduce swelling. In some cases, surgery may be recommended. Bed rest may be needed in order for the spine to heal. After acute spinal cord injuries occur, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, and other rehabilitation interventions, are sometimes required.

Currently, there is no cure for spinal cord injury. However, researchers continue to work on advances, many of which have resulted in a decrease in damage at the time of the injury.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on December 15, 2017

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