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Acute Spinal Cord Injury

What is an acute spinal cord injury (SCI)?

The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that carries signals between the brain and the rest of the body. Acute spinal cord injury (SCI) is due to a traumatic injury. The injury may cause a bruise (contusion), compression (from blood or bones), a partial tear, or a complete tear (transection) in the spinal cord. SCI is more common in men and young adults.

SCI results in a decrease or loss of movement, feeling, and organ function below the level of the injury. The most common sites of injury are the cervical and thoracic areas. SCI is a common cause of lifelong (permanent) disability and death in children and adults.

The spine has 33 vertebrae. They are:

  • 7 cervical (neck)

  • 12 thoracic (upper back)

  • 5 lumbar (lower back)

  • 5 sacral* (sacrum, located in the pelvis)

  • 4 coccygeal* (coccyx, located in the pelvis)

* By adulthood, the 5 sacral vertebrae fuse to form 1 bone. The 4 coccygeal vertebrae fuse to form 1 bone.

These vertebrae form the spine and protect the spinal cord. In general, the higher up the spine that the injury happens, the more severe the symptoms. Injury to the vertebrae does not always mean the spinal cord has been damaged. And damage to the spinal cord can happen without breaks or dislocations of the vertebrae.

SCI can be divided into two main types of injury:

  • Complete injury. There is no function below the level of the injury. This means no feeling or movement. Both sides of the body are equally affected. Complete injuries can happen at any level of the spinal cord.

  • Incomplete injury. There is some function below the level of the injury. This could be movement in one limb more than the other, feeling in parts of the body, or more function on one side of the body than the other. Incomplete injuries can happen at any level of the spinal cord.

What causes an acute spinal cord injury?

There are many causes of SCI. The more common injuries happen when the area of the spine or neck is bent or compressed. This can be caused by:

  • Birth injuries, which often affect the spinal cord in the neck area

  • Falls

  • Car accidents, either when a person is a passenger in a car or is hit by a car

  • Sports injuries

  • Diving accidents

  • Trampoline accidents

  • Violence, such as injuries that pierce the spinal cord, including gunshots and stab wounds

Who is at risk for an acute spinal cord injury?

Age is the main risk factor linked to spinal cord injuries. Young adult males (between ages 15 and 35) and older adults are at the highest risk. 

SCI risk peaks during young adulthood. Young adults tend to have increased risk due to violence, motor vehicle accidents, and sports injuries. The rate of violence-related SCIs in young adults has gone down since the 1990s.

In older adults, falls are the leading cause of SCIs. These numbers have gone up since the 1990s.

What are the symptoms of an acute spinal cord injury?

Symptoms vary depending on the severity and location of the SCI. At first, the person may have spinal shock. This causes loss of feeling, muscle movement, and reflexes below the level of injury. Spinal shock often lasts from several hours to several weeks. As the shock lessens, other symptoms appear. This depends on the location of the injury.

For SCI, the higher up on the spinal cord, the more severe the symptoms. For example:

  • Injury at C2 or C3. These are the second and third vertebrae in the spinal column. This affects the respiratory muscles and the ability to breathe. 

  • Injury in the lumbar vertebrae. This may affect nerve and muscle control to the bladder, bowel, and legs.

SCI is classified according to a person's type of loss of motor and sensory function. These are the main types:

  • Quadriplegia(quad means 4). This is loss of movement and feeling in all 4 limbs (arms and legs). It often happens as a result of injury at T1 or above. Quadriplegia also affects the chest muscles. Injuries at C4 or above need a mechanical breathing machine (ventilator).

  • Paraplegia(para here means side by side). This is loss of movement and feeling in the lower half of the body (right and left legs). It often happens as a result of injuries at T1 or below.

  • Triplegia(tri means 3). This is loss of movement and feeling in one arm and both legs. It often results from incomplete SCI.

The most common symptoms of acute spinal cord injury may include:

  • Muscle weakness or paralysis in the trunk, arms, or legs

  • Loss of feeling in the trunk, arms, or legs

  • Muscle spasticity

  • Breathing problems

  • Problems with heart rate and blood pressure

  • Digestive problems

  • Loss of bowel and bladder function

  • Sexual problems

Many of these symptoms may be caused by other health problems. Always talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is an acute spinal cord injury diagnosed? 

SCIs are not always easy to recognize. These situations should be considered as a possible spinal cord injury:

  • Head injury, especially with trauma to the face

  • Pelvic fractures

  • Penetrating injuries to the spinal area

  • Injuries from falling from heights or down stairs

  • Complaints of spinal pain

  • Weakness or a loss of feeling in the hands or feet (extremities)

  • Loss of urine or bowel control

If the symptoms or accident occur at home or in the community, call 911. Don't move the person until paramedics arrive. To prevent more spinal cord injury, the paramedics will use extreme care and allow as little movement of the spine as possible. The injured person will be taken to an emergency room or trauma center.

The first medical care focuses on reducing any life-threatening problems, such as bleeding or breathing problems. Movement and feeling tests are done to see if a spinal cord injury occurred. If a spinal cord injury is suspected, tests are done. These include lab tests, X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs. These tests are used to find the location and severity of the injury. To protect the spine, the neck and body is kept immobile. 

A person with a traumatic spinal cord injury goes to an intensive care unit. There they are watched for things such as breathing problems and heart problems. A full neurologic exam is done as soon as possible. This is done to diagnose the exact level and severity of the injury. These factors determine both the treatment and the expected level of recovery.

How is an acute spinal cord injury treated?

The first treatment for SCIs depends on the location and severity of the injury. Some people may be treated with medicines called steroids. These help reduce the swelling in the spinal column. If the back bones (vertebrae) were moved out of position, surgery may be used to fix them. Rehabilitation (rehab) begins during the early treatment phase. As the person’s condition improves, a more detailed rehab program is often begun.

The success of rehab depends on many things, including:

  • Level and severity of the SCI

  • Type and degree of resulting impairments and disabilities

  • The person’s overall health

  • Family support

The goal of SCI rehab is to help the person return to the highest level of function and independence possible, while improving the overall quality of life physically, emotionally, and socially. A variety of SCI treatment specialists will develop rehab treatment plans that focus on maximizing the person's capabilities at home and in the community. Positive reinforcement and emotional support are used throughout rehab to improve self-esteem and promote independence.

How do I manage an acute spinal cord injury?

SCIs impact all parts of a person's life. SCI management involves knowledge of both the skills needed for daily living and an awareness of common long-term problems that happen in people with paraplegia and quadriplegia.

Depending on the level of your injury, daily management skills include such things as how to:

  • Cope with emotions such as fear, sadness, or anger

  • Use a wheelchair

  • Manage your bladder and bowel (if you have no control over your bladder or bowel)

  • Exercise, to help you regain as much movement in your arms or legs as possible

Common long-term management problems in people with SCIs include:

  • Emotional and money issues linked to the disability

  • Pain

  • Urinary tract infections and kidney problems

  • Damage to the skin and tissue under the skin caused by pressure

  • Lung infections and breathing problems

  • Weakening of bones

  • Muscle and joint stiffness

There are many spinal cord injury treatment and rehab programs to help you deal with both short and long-term SCI management. These include:

  • Acute rehabilitation programs

  • Subacute rehabilitation programs

  • Long-term rehabilitation programs

  • Transitional living programs

  • Day-treatment programs

  • Vocational rehabilitation programs

Talk with your family and your rehab team about short-term and long-term goals. Your rehab team can help you find treatment and rehab programs and local resources to help you and your family.

What can I do to prevent an acute spinal cord injury?

The goal is to prevent injuries. The following behaviors can help prevent SCI.

Car crash injuries 

Always wear seat belts.

  • Require all passengers in your car to wear seat belts.

  • Use the correct safety seats and restraints for children. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that children should ride in the back seat until they are older than age 12.

  • Don’t use cellphones, eat, drink, or apply makeup while driving. Enforce hands-free driving laws.

  • Enforce laws and educate others about impaired driving linked to alcohol and substance abuse, including prescription medicines.


  • Use handrails while climbing stairs and keep floors clear of debris and hazards, such as rugs and electrical cords.

  • Have grab bars in bathrooms and showers to prevent slipping.

  • Do regular aerobic and exercises to strengthen and maintain core body strength and balance

  • For children, use window latches and safety gates to block dangerous areas

Firearm injuries

  • Always assume a gun is loaded and handle it as such.

  • Secure all guns in a locked location away from children.

  • Store bullets separately from the guns.

  • Educate children and teens about the dangers of guns and teach them how to solve arguments without violence.

  • Teach children to tell adults immediately if a friend has a gun or access to one

Team sport injuries

  • Ensure that players with the same skill levels, size, and maturity level play one another.

  • Always use correct and adequate protective gear. Damaged gear should never be used.

  • Use only fields and playgrounds that are well maintained and well lit.

Water-related injuries

  • Don’t drink alcohol when swimming.

  • Never dive into shallow water, whether it is a swimming pool, river, or lake.

  • Use clearly marked depths in swimming pools and have designated diving and no-diving areas.

  • Never push or shove another person into a swimming pool or body of water.

  • Make sure there is a lifeguard or someone trained in water safety in the swimming area.

  • Secure the pool with fencing and a locked gate when it is not being used.

Recreational sports injuries

  • Use a correct helmet that is secured with a chin strap while bicycling, skateboarding, roller-skating, and during any other high-risk activities, such as four-wheeling or motorcycle riding.

  • Only use a helmet with a sticker stating that it meets the standards set by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Trampoline injuries

  • Trampoline injuries affect young kids. About 66% of injuries occur in children between ages 6 and 14. And 15% of injuries are reported in children younger than 6 years old. For children using trampolines:

  • Competent supervision is the key primary prevention tip for trampoline usage.

  • Netting constructed around the trampoline can reduce the number of falls. But it is not a substitute for supervision.

  • The trampoline should be placed on ground level to prevent falls off the side. The area should be well lit.

  • Acrobatic moves should be done only under the supervision of a trained professional or with specialized equipment, such as a harness.

  • Trampolines should not be overcrowded.

Key points about acute spinal cord injury

  • Acute spinal cord injury (SCI) is due to a traumatic injury. The injury may cause a bruise, a partial tear, or a complete tear to the spinal cord.

  • SCI results in a decrease or loss of movement, feeling, and body organ function below the level of the injury.

  • SCI can be caused by sports injuries, car accidents, birth injuries, and violent incidents.

  • In general, the higher in the spinal column the injury happens, the more severe the symptoms.

  • The immediate treatment for SCIs depends on the location and severity of the injury. Some people may be treated with medicines, and others may have surgery.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your healthcare provider if you have questions, especially after office hours or on weekends.

Online Medical Reviewer: Joseph Campellone MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 4/1/2023
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.