What is a spinal cord injury?

Types of SCI_image

What is a spinal cord injury?

Spinal cord injury is damage to the spinal cord causing temporary or permanent change in function

In most cases, paralysis is caused by acute damage to the spinal cord following a traumatic injury. Nerve fibres are disrupted and nerve cells at, and around, the site of injury are destroyed.

An injury of the spinal cord not only impacts the ability to move your limbs; the damage also causes a large number of secondary health complications.

More than being paralysed

Living with a spinal cord injury is much more than being paralysed

People with spinal cord injury face many challenging secondary health complications that diminish quality of life and capacity for independence.

Secondary health implications may include:

  • Loss of bladder and bowel control
  • Blood pressure fluctuations
  • Recurrent bronchitis and pneumonia
  • Obstructive sleep apnoea
  • Recurrent urinary tract infections
  • Reduced sexual function
  • Severe osteoporosis
  • Muscle spasticity
  • Pressure sores
  • Inability to regulate body temperature
  • Nerve sensitivity and neuropathic pain
  • Diminished mental health

Social marginalisation may include:

  • Inaccessible public spaces, housing and workplaces
  • Social and cultural barriers which limit opportunities for community participation on an equal basis with other citizens
Lady in wheelchair talking to boy

Spinal cord injury resources

Research-based resources relating to spinal cord injury

SCIRE Community
Spinal Cord Injury Research Evidence (SCIRE) Community provides free information about spinal cord injury research that is written in everyday language.
Spinal cord injury research evidence

Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center
Find the information you need to live well. Free research-based rehabilitation resources.
Spinal cord injury fact sheets


The incidence of spinal cord injury can be reduced by taking precautions

Following this advice may help reduce your risk of a spinal cord injury:

  • Drive safely. Always wear seat belts and ensure children use appropriate restraints. Remember, children under 12 should ride in the back to avoid airbag risks.
  • Never dive unless certain of water depth — at least 12 feet/3.7 meters for pools. Avoid diving into above-ground pools or unknown depths.
  • Prevent falls. Use step stools with grab bars, add stair handrails, use non-slip mats, and install safety gates and window guards for young kids.
  • Play sports safely. Wear proper safety gear and don’t lead with your head.
  • Never drink and drive, and avoid riding with intoxicated drivers.

Mayo Clinic, 2 Oct 2021

In an emergency

Know what to do if you suspect someone has a back or neck injury

If you suspect that someone has a back or neck injury:

  • Don’t move the injured person — permanent paralysis and other serious complications can result
  • Call 000 or your local emergency medical assistance number
  • Keep the person still
  • Place heavy towels on both sides of the neck or hold the head and neck to prevent them from moving until emergency care arrives
  • Provide basic first aid, such as stopping bleeding and making the person comfortable, without moving the head or neck

Mayo Clinic, 2 Oct 2021

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