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Types of Spinal Cord Injuries

The Most Common Causes of Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord injuries are undeniably serious and can lead to life-changing consequences for the affected individuals and their families. At PhillyLaw, we understand the profound impact such injuries can have on your physical health, emotional well-being, and financial stability. We are committed to ensuring that you receive the compensation you deserve if your spinal injury resulted from one of these common causes due to someone else’s negligence. With our dedicated team of legal professionals, we are here to offer support, guidance, and robust representation to help you navigate through this challenging time and secure the justice you rightly deserve. If you have suffered a spinal cord injury, contact one of the experienced spinal cord injury lawyers at PhillyLaw for a free consultation to learn more about how you can be compensated for your injuries.

Types of Spinal Cord Injuries

Spinal cord injuries (SCIs) are classified into two main types based on the extent of damage: complete and incomplete.

Complete Spinal Cord Injuries

A complete spinal cord injury results in a total loss of sensory and motor functions below the level of the injury. Complete injury means that the individual has no control over movement nor any sensation in the areas affected. A complete injury can occur at any level of the spinal cord and result in paralysis of the body parts below the injury site, known as paraplegia or quadriplegia, depending on the injury’s location on the spinal cord.

Incomplete Spinal Cord Injuries

In contrast, an incomplete spinal cord injury is characterized by some degree of sensory or motor function below the affected area. Incomplete injury means that the extent of function or sensation that remains can vary widely among individuals and is dependent on the severity of the damage. People with an incomplete injury may retain some motor or sensory function below the injury level and have a better chance of recovery.

Levels of Spinal Cord Injury

The impact of a spinal cord injury largely depends on the “level” of the injury, which refers to the position on the spine where the damage occurs. The spine is divided into four regions:

  • Cervical (C1-C8): Injuries in this region affect neck and arm movement, breathing capability, and, in more severe cases, can result in full paralysis from the neck down (quadriplegia).
  • Thoracic (T1-T12): Thoracic injuries primarily affect the chest and legs, potentially resulting in paralysis or weakness of the legs (paraplegia).
  • Lumbar (L1-L5): Injuries to the lumbar spine can result in paraplegia, with varying degrees of independence depending on the strength of the upper body.
  • Sacral (S1-S5): Sacral injuries affect the hips and legs, potentially leading to mobility issues, though most individuals can walk independently.

Acute Spinal Cord Injury

An acute spinal cord injury refers to the sudden trauma or damage to the spinal cord which results in its impairment or loss of function. This type of injury typically occurs as a result of accidents, falls, sports injuries, or violent encounters such as stabbings or gunshot wounds. The immediate aftermath of an acute spinal cord injury is critical and requires prompt medical attention to assess the level of damage and initiate the appropriate response to prevent further injury.

Following the initial injury, the spinal cord may experience a secondary phase of damage. This phase can involve swelling, inflammation, and the release of chemicals within the body that can exacerbate the injury. The management of an acute spinal cord injury may include stabilizing the spine to prevent further damage, administering medications to reduce inflammation, and in some cases, surgery to relieve pressure on the spinal cord or to repair damage to the spinal column.

The early treatment and management of an acute spinal cord injury can significantly affect the long-term outcome for the patient, potentially improving the chances of recovery and reducing the risk of long-term complications. Rehabilitation plays a crucial role in the recovery process, with a multidisciplinary team working to maximize the individual’s functional independence and quality of life.

Understanding the type and level of spinal cord injury is crucial for devising an effective treatment plan and setting realistic expectations for recovery. Each injury is unique, and rehabilitation goals are personalized to maximize independence and improve the quality of life for those affected.

Causes of Spinal Cord Injuries

The leading causes of spinal cord injuries, often the result of accidents or violence, highlight the vulnerability of the spinal cord under certain conditions. These causes include:

Motor Vehicle Accidents

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries, accounting for nearly half of new spinal cord injuries each year. The force involved in vehicle crashes can causes traumatic spinal cord injuries like damage to the bones called vertebrae, ligaments, or disks of the spinal column or sever the spinal cord itself.


Particularly in individuals over the age of 65, falls represent a significant risk for spinal cord injury. However, falls from significant heights can cause these injuries in people of any age.

Acts of Violence

Gunshot and knife wounds are among the more common violent acts leading to spinal cord injuries, reflecting the devastating impact of direct trauma to the spine.

Sports and Recreation Injuries

Athletic activities, including impact sports and diving in shallow water, contribute to spinal cord injuries as well as other sports-related injuries. While less common than other causes, these injuries can profoundly affect younger populations.


Alcohol use is a factor in about 1 in every 4 spinal cord injuries, underscoring the increased risk of injury in impaired states.


Conditions such as cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis, and inflammation of the spinal cord also account for a portion of spinal injuries, highlighting the importance of medical management of these conditions.

Understanding these common causes is pivotal for prevention efforts and underscores the critical need for legal and medical advocacy for those affected. At PhillyLaw, we prioritize your well-being and legal rights, guiding you through the recovery process and beyond.

Symptoms of a Spinal Cord Injury

Identifying symptoms of a spinal cord injury early can significantly improve the outcome for the injured party. The nature and severity of these symptoms can vary depending on the location and the extent of the injury. Common symptoms include:

Loss of Movement

One may experience an inability to move parts of the body freely, which could be partial or complete paralysis.

Reduced Muscle Control

In addition to the potential for loss of muscle movement, spinal cord injuries may lead to reduced muscle control or coordination. This can manifest as difficulty in controlling movements or maintaining balance, even in parts of the body that have not lost total mobility. Individuals might struggle with tasks that require fine motor skills, such as writing or buttoning a shirt, making everyday activities more challenging. Muscle spasms or increased muscle tone can also be symptoms, reflecting the body’s response to the disruption in nerve signals caused by the spinal cord injury.

Altered Sensation

This includes the loss of the ability to feel heat, cold, and touch, often described as numbness or tingling sensations.

Impaired Function of Pelvic Organs

Another direct consequence of spinal cord injuries is the impaired function of pelvic organs. This can manifest as sexual dysfunction, fertility issues, and difficulties in bladder and bowel management. The disruption to the nervous system can affect the signals between the spinal cord and the pelvic region, leading to challenges in sexual health and the functionality of the urinary and gastrointestinal systems.

Loss of Bladder or Bowel Control

Spinal cord injuries can disrupt the nerves that control bladder and bowel functions, leading to incontinence or retention. Individuals with spinal cord injuries are at a heightened risk of developing urinary tract infections (UTIs) due to the potential complications involved with bladder management systems. Often, the impaired bladder control necessitates the use of catheters, which if not managed properly, can introduce bacteria into the urinary tract.

Changes in Sexual Function

Injury to the spinal cord can affect sexual function, including fertility issues in both men and women. For men, spinal cord injuries can lead to challenges such as erectile dysfunction and ejaculatory issues, which can complicate natural conception efforts. Similarly, women may experience disruptions in menstrual cycles and reduced vaginal lubrication, which can affect fertility.

Pain or Intense Stinging Sensation

This is caused by the damage to nerve fibers in the spinal cord. Patients may experience pain or a sensation akin to burning even without an obvious injury at the site.

Difficulty Breathing, Coughing, or Clearing Lungs

When the injury affects the spinal cord at the neck or chest level, it can interfere with the muscles that control breathing.

Immediate medical attention is crucial following any spinal cord damage to assess for potential spinal cord injuries and commence appropriate management strategies. Early intervention can be pivotal in recovery and long-term outcomes.

Diagnosis of a Spinal Cord Injury

Diagnosing a spinal cord injury involves a series of evaluations and tests to determine the presence and extent of damage. Initially, healthcare professionals will conduct a comprehensive physical examination and gather a detailed medical history, focusing on the specifics of the incident that led to the injury and the symptoms experienced by the patient. Key diagnostic tools include:

Imaging Tests

  • X-rays are typically the first step in imaging, used to identify vertebral (spinal column) problems, tumors, fractures, or degenerative changes in the spine.
  • Computed Tomography (CT) scans provide a more detailed look than X-rays, helping to visualize the spinal column and identify injuries to the vertebrae, discs, and other structures.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans are crucial for assessing the spinal cord and identifying herniated discs, blood clots, or other masses that may be compressing the spinal cord.

Neurological Tests

To ascertain the completeness and level of the injury, neurological exams play a pivotal role. These tests evaluate the sensory function and motor skills of the individual, pinpointing the area of injury within the spinal cord and determining the severity of the impairment.

Other Diagnostic Procedures

Occasionally, additional tests such as myelograms (an X-ray or CT scan that uses a contrast dye to provide clear pictures of the spinal cord), somatosensory evoked potentials (SSEPs, tests measuring the electrical activity of the nervous system), and motor evoked potentials (MEPs, tests examining the electrical conduction pathways to muscles) may be employed for a comprehensive assessment.

Following these diagnostic steps, healthcare professionals can classify the injury and tailor a treatment plan suited to the patient’s needs. The diagnosis not only aids in understanding the current impact of the injury but also in planning for immediate and future medical and rehabilitative care.

Treatment for a Spinal Cord Injury

Treatment for a spinal cord injury focuses on preventing further injury and enabling individuals to return to an active and productive life within the scope of their capabilities. Initially, stabilizing the spine and reducing inflammation are critical steps to minimize the extent of the damage. This may involve the use of braces or surgery to stabilize the spine. Following stabilization, comprehensive rehabilitation programs play a vital role. These programs often include employing physical and occupational therapists with physical therapy used to strengthen muscles and improve mobility, and occupational therapy to assist with daily activities, and counseling to support mental and emotional health.

Advanced treatments and technologies also offer hope for recovery and independence. Electrical stimulation devices can sometimes restore function, while ongoing research into stem cell therapy and neuroregeneration holds the potential for significant breakthroughs in treating spinal cord injuries. Medications to manage symptoms such as pain, spasticity, and bladder or bowel complications are also an important component of comprehensive care.

The goal of treatment is twofold: to maximize the individual’s function, independence, and quality of life, and to prevent secondary complications that can arise from immobility, such as pressure ulcers, blood clots, and respiratory infections. A multidisciplinary approach involving doctors, nurses, therapists, and support from family and community resources is essential for achieving the best possible outcomes.

Preventing Spinal Cord Injuries

Preventing spinal cord injuries (SCIs) is paramount to reducing the incidence of these life-altering conditions. Effective prevention strategies involve both individual actions and broader societal measures to mitigate risks. On an individual level, wearing seat belts in vehicles, using appropriate protective gear when engaging in sports, and practicing safe diving techniques can significantly decrease the odds of sustaining an SCI. Similarly, workplaces can enforce safety protocols, provide training on handling heavy equipment, and ensure environments are free from hazards to prevent falls and injuries.

Public health campaigns and community education also play a crucial role in raising awareness about SCI risks and prevention methods. Efforts to improve road safety, such as enforcing speed limits, discouraging drunk driving, and promoting the use of helmets on bicycles and motorcycles, further contribute to SCI prevention. Additionally, advocating for safer construction practices and adherence to building codes helps minimize work-related SCIs.

Preventative measures must be inclusive, targeting all age groups and activities where risks are present. By fostering a culture of safety and prevention, society can work towards significantly reducing the occurrence of spinal cord injuries, thereby sparing individuals and their families from the profound impact these injuries have on lives.

Risk Factors for Spinal Cord Injury

Several factors can increase the likelihood of sustaining a spinal cord injury (SCI). Age plays a significant role, with young adults, especially those between the ages of 16 and 30, being at a higher risk due to a propensity for engaging in riskier behaviors and activities. Men are also more likely to experience SCIs, accounting for approximately 78% of all reported cases. Participation in certain sports, such as football, rugby, or skiing, without proper safety measures increases the risk of injury. Additionally, individuals with bone or joint disorders, such as arthritis or osteoporosis, are at an elevated risk due to the weakened state of their skeletal system. Lifestyle choices that involve excessive alcohol consumption or risk-taking behaviors contribute to the likelihood of accidents that could result in spinal cord injuries. Lastly, individuals with a previous spinal injury are at a higher risk of subsequent SCIs due to the increased vulnerability of their spinal structure.

If you believe you have sustained a spinal cord injury (SCI), immediate action is critical to minimize the impact and prevent further damage. The following steps should be taken urgently:

  1. Do Not Move: Avoid moving your body, especially the neck and back, to prevent exacerbating the injury. Any movement can lead to more severe damage.
  2. Call for Emergency Assistance: Have someone call medical emergency services right away. Explain the situation clearly, emphasizing the suspicion of a spinal cord injury so that appropriate response teams can be dispatched.
  3. Keep Calm: Try to stay as calm as possible. Panic can increase your blood pressure and might worsen the situation.
  4. Do Not Remove Protective Gear: If you’re wearing a helmet or other protective gear, leave it on. Emergency responders will safely remove any gear as needed.
  5. Monitor Breathing and Alertness: If you’re with someone suspected of having an SCI, monitor their breathing and level of consciousness while waiting for help. Be ready to provide CPR if they are trained and it’s safe to do so, but avoid moving the person’s neck or back.
  6. Follow EMS Directions: Once emergency services arrive, they may immobilize the spinal area using a neck collar or a backboard. Follow all instructions from emergency medical personnel to ensure the safest transport to a medical facility.
  7. Undergo Comprehensive Medical Evaluation: At the emergency room, expect a thorough evaluation, including imaging tests like X-rays, MRI, or CT scans, to assess the extent of the injury and determine the appropriate course of treatment.

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of a spinal cord injury and responding appropriately can be life-saving, and following these steps ensures the best possible outcome following such a critical injury.

PhillyLaw is Here in the Aftermath of a Spinal Cord Injury

If you or a loved one are navigating the aftermath of a traumatic spinal cord injury, seeking compensation for the physical, emotional, and financial toll it can take is a crucial step towards recovery. At PhillyLaw, we are dedicated to advocating for those affected by such life-changing injuries. Our experienced team understands the complexity of spinal cord injury cases and is here to guide you through every step of the legal process. We aim to ensure you receive the justice and compensation you deserve to support your ongoing care, rehabilitation, and the adjustments needed for your new way of life. With PhillyLaw by your side, you’re not alone in this fight. Reach out to us for a free consultation, along with compassionate and committed legal representation in your quest for compensation.