Spinal Cord Injury - Causes

The spinal cord is a long rope-like piece of nervous tissue. It runs from the brain down the back. It is contained within the spinal column. The spinal column consists of a set of bones known as vertebrae (pronounced VUR-tuh-bray).

Pairs of nerves travel from the spinal cord to muscles in the arms, legs, and other parts of the body. Messages travel from muscles to the spinal cord and then to the brain along one set of nerves. Messages travel in the opposite direction, from brain to spine to muscles, along the other set of nerves.

Each pair of nerves is connected to the spinal cord in the space between two adjacent vertebrae. The nerves are named for the vertebrae where they enter the spinal cord. The five sets of nerves connecting to the spinal cord are defined as follows:

  • C1-8 nerves enter the spine near the eighth cervical vertebrae, located in the neck.
  • T1-12 nerves enter the spine near the thoracic vertebrae, located in the chest.
  • L1-5 nerves enter the spine near the lumbar vertebrae, in the lower back.
  • S1-5 nerves enter the spine through the sacral vertebrae, located in the pelvis region.
  • The coccygeal nerves (pronounced kock-SIHJ-ee-uhl) enter the spine through the coccyx, or tailbone.

Injury to the spinal cord may damage any one or more of these nerves. When nerves are damaged, messages can not travel from the brain to the body's muscles, or from the muscles to the brain. For example, a person may lose their sense of touch if nerve messages are not able to travel from the fingers to the brain. Or a person may lose the ability to walk if nerve messages can not travel from the brain to leg and foot muscles. Other functions, such as urination, sexual function, sweating, and blood pressure, may also be affected.

Autonomic responses:
Bodily responses that occur automatically, without the need for a person to think about it.
Permanent tightening and shortening of a muscle.
A bruise.
Motor function:
A body function controlled by muscles.
The permanent tightening of a joint into an abnormal position.
Spinal cord:
A long rope-like piece of nervous tissue that runs from the brain down the back.
Spinal transection:
A complete break in the spinal column.
Bones that make up the spinal column.

The spinal cord can be damaged in many ways. A sudden and violent jolt can cause a temporary spinal concussion. The symptoms of a concussion usually disappear completely in a few hours. Or the spinal cord can suffer a contusion. A contusion is a bruise that can cause bleeding in the spinal column. Such bleeding can produce pressure on nerve cells that can cause those cells to die.

Spinal compression is caused when an object such as a tumor or abnormal growth puts pressure on the spinal column. This compression can cause the death of nerve cells.

Some injuries can cause a laceration (tear) in the spinal column. In the most serious cases, the spinal cord can be torn apart. This type of injury is known as a spinal transection. A spinal cord injury can consist of any one or combination of these types of damage.

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