What is a spinal cord injury?

The nervous system, which consists of the brain, spinal cord and nerves, gives us our sense of touch and the ability to move. The brain transmits impulses via the spinal cord to the nerves, which in turn cause the muscles – and thus the body – to move. The nerves, on the other hand, transmit impulses to the brain, which is the mechanism behind our sense of touch.

A spinal cord injury breaks the contact between the brain and the spinal cord in full or in part. The brain can no longer send out impulses to the muscles and the nerves can no longer send impulses to the brain. Think of it as cutting the electric cord to a lamp; the light can no longer be turned on because electricity can no longer travel through the cord.

There are different degrees of spinal cord injuries. The extent of the disability depends on the location of the injury. The spinal cord is protected by the 29 vertebrae of the spine.

The top seven are called cervical vertebrae, below them are the twelve thoracic vertebrae and even lower are the five lumbar and five sacral vertebrae. If any of the cervical vertebrae are crushed and the cervical spinal cord is injured, the result is tetraplegia – paralysis of the legs, trunk and arms. Injuries further down the spine result in paraplegia – paralysis of the legs and part of the trunk. It is common to lose sensation (sense of touch) in the part of the body that is paralyzed.

A distinction is made between complete and incomplete injury. A complete injury means that the spinal cord is completely severed. In an incomplete injury, some isolated nerve contacts remain. In general it can be said that the extent to which paralysis affects individuals is highly variable.