Spinal Cord Injury

What you need to know to manage your condition.

Every year, more than 12,000 people in the United States sustain a spinal cord injury. A spinal cord injury (SCI)changes a person’s life in an instant, and can have life-changing consequences. Veterans who have experienced an SCI can take advantage of ongoing support and helpful resources and benefits through Paralyzed Veterans of America membership.

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What is a spinal cord injury — and how does it affect the brain?

When a person receives a spinal cord injury, the communication between the brain and the body can become disrupted. The extent of the communication breakdown is dependent on both the severity and location of the injury.

The human spinal cord is a bundle of nerve cells and fibers that extends from the brain to the lower back. It carries messages from the brain to all parts of the body and receives incoming messages back from the body as well.

With an SCI, messages can no longer flow from the brain past the damaged area of the spinal cord. This can cause reflexes without limit. One example is spasticity - the uncontrolled movement of the arms or legs. This can also affect brain messages to the muscles that coordinate complicated movements such as walking. Spinal cord injuries occur at any level of the spinal cord, and the level of the injury will dictate which bodily functions are altered or lost.

Introduction to Spinal Cord Injury

A brief overview of spinal cord injuries appears below. For more complete information, download our free PDF: An Introduction to Spinal Cord Injury

What are the causes of SCI?

Spinal cord injuries can be a result of traumatic or non-traumatic events. Traumatic injuries include those sustained in military service, auto accidents, falls, sports injuries, or violence. Non-traumatic injuries may be caused by arthritis, cancer, infections, or disk degeneration of the spine.

What are the symptoms of SCI?

A spinal cord injury can occur at any level of the spinal cord and cause changes in movement, feeling, bladder control, or other bodily functions. The number of changes depends on both the location and severity of the injury.

What is the recovery process?

Immediately after it becomes injured, the spinal cord goes into “spinal shock” and stops doing its job for a period of time. The return of reflexes to the area below the level of injury marks the end of spinal shock. It’s at this time that doctors can determine if the injury is complete or incomplete. If the injury is incomplete, some feelings and movement may come back.

Rehabilitation begins immediately and usually involves strengthening exercises, and instruction on new styles of movement and the use of any necessary special equipment. 

Today, there are various options for veterans recovering from SCI. The Veterans Administration provides a network of hospitals and SCI Centers across the country that provide comprehensive and specialized care. Here’s how to find one near you.