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Treating Spinal Cord Injury Symptoms

Our Spinal Cord Injury Program specializes in caring for spinal cord injury patients immediately after the injury and during rehabilitation and recovery. We offer treatment options that are unique in the country and provide you with the tools and skills needed to live a full and satisfying life.  

You or your loved one will be surrounded by a collaborative team of spinal cord injury specialists who are fully invested in your long-term care. The Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital at University of Utah Health connects to our larger academic hospital, which will give our patients easy accessibility to all of our specialists. This collaboration allows us to serve a wide variety of spinal cord injury patients including those who are still on a ventilator.

Finding Resilience After a Spinal Cord Injury

At the heart of the Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital is a dedication to helping patients discover their resilience and adapt to a new way of life after a traumatic spinal cord injury.

Read Kaylee's Story

Signs of a Spinal Cord Injury

A spinal cord injury is a life-altering event. The nerves inside the spinal cord have been damaged, therefore interrupting the flow of information from the brain to the body. For some patients, this means short-term paralysis. For others, there will be a permanent loss of function. 

The signs of spinal cord injury can appear in a variety of places in the body. Symptoms can also change and increase over time:

  • Paralysis or weakness in any area
  • Intense pressure or pain in the head, neck, or back
  • Loss of feeling or tingling in the feet, toes, hands, or fingers
  • Abnormally-bent neck or back
  • Problems walking
  • Trouble with balance
  • Inability to control bladder or bowels
  • Difficulty breathing

As a result of a spinal cord injury, you may also experience the following:

  • Problems with touch such as distinguishing between hot and cold
  • Muscle spasms
  • Pain or stinging
  • Sexual function challenges

Spinal Cord Injury Diagnosis

To determine the extent of your injury, we will want to know more about the circumstances of your injury and overall health. In an initial evaluation of your injury, we will check your muscle control, strength, and reflexes.

We may do a CT (computerized tomography) or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to better understand whether blood clots, herniated disks, or anything else may be affecting the spinal cord.

We may recommend surgery to take the pressure off your spinal cord. However, this decision depends on the location and type of injury. We may perform surgery immediately or days after your injury.

Find a Spinal Cord Injury Specialist

Spinal Cord Injury Causes

Spinal cord injuries occur in two ways: either from an outside impact or from something that happens inside your body. The spinal cord does not have to be severed — or broken — for an injury to occur. In many cases, an injury takes place when the spinal cord is bruised but still intact.

There are two types of spinal cord injuries:

  1. Traumatic spinal cord injury — After a car accident, sports injury, fall, or act of violence (such as a gunshot wound), your vertebrae may be dislocated, fractured or compressed. As a result, parts of your nerve cells are damaged, which means communication can no longer occur between the body and the brain.  
  2. Nontraumatic spinal cord injury — A tumor, infection, arthritis, and inflammation can lead to damage of your spinal cord.

Spinal Cord Injury Risk Factors

According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, your gender and activities can increase the risk of a spinal cord injury.

Men make up 78 percent of all new spinal cord injuries. The average age of spinal cord injury patients is 43 — a significant increase from the 1970s when the average age of a patient was 29.

The most common cause of spinal cord injury is a car accident, but many patients experience an injury outside a car. Since 2015, data on spinal cord injuries show the following results:

  • 39.3 percent are caused by car accidents
  • 31.8 percent are a result of falls
  • 13.5 percent take place after acts of violence, primarily gunshot wounds
  • 8 percent result from sports accidents
  • 4.3 percent take place for medical/surgical reasons
  • 3.1 percent have other various causes

Spinal Cord Injury Frequency

Nearly 18,000 Americans experience a spinal cord injury each year. Approximately 300,000 Americans currently live with a spinal cord injury.

While there is no simple cure for a spinal cord injury, ongoing research on surgical techniques and medication is giving hope to many spinal cord injury survivors. Research shows that beginning rehabilitation as early as possible has a better outcome for the patient.

Types of Spinal Cord Injuries

The location of your injury and the type of impact will affect how much control you may lose over your body. We separate spinal cord injuries into two categories:

  1. Complete spinal cord injury—If your injury is complete, you can no longer feel anything or control your body below the injury site.      
  2. Incomplete spinal cord injury—Patients who have some sensation and control beneath the injury site have an incomplete injury, which can vary in degrees. These patients have a greater chance of regaining some function.

We describe how much of the body is affected using two common classifications for injuries:

  • Paraplegia—This means the injury affects the lower half of your body including the legs, torso, and pelvic organs.           
  • Quadriplegia or tetraplegia—These words both describe the condition when someone’s hands, arms, legs, torso, and pelvic organs are affected by the injury.

Spinal Cord Injury Levels

Your doctor may use the American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) grading scale to help you understand your diagnosis. Your vertebrae (stack of small bones that create your spine) are known by a type and number. 

While a function chart may suggest that you can define each spinal cord injury, you should remember that each person’s injury is unique. Your prognosis will depend on much more than the part of your spine that has been affected. 

The following classifications are based on the sections of vertebrae that are injured:        

  • Cervical spinal cord injury—These are the vertebrae in your neck (vertebrae C1 to C7). An injury in this area is often the most severe.
  • Thoracic spinal cord injury—These are the vertebrae in your upper and middle part of your back (T1 to T12).
  • Lumbar spinal cord injury—These are the vertebrae in the lower section of your back (L1 to L5). This kind of injury typically does not affect the upper body.
  • Sacral spinal cord injury—These are the vertebrae in your sacral spine (or sacrum) above your tailbone (S1 to S5).

Spinal Cord Injury Complications

When someone experiences a spinal cord injury, other internal organs and functions are also affected, which may lead to problems in the following areas: 

  • Bowels and bladder control
  • Sexual function
  • Blood pressure
  • Spasticity or stiff and tight muscles
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Breathing
  • Pressure ulcers
  • Depression
  • Chronic pain

Life Expectancy

Due to advances in medical science, many spinal cord injury patients can live for many years after the diagnosis. Some will live for decades gaining further education, marrying, and continuing to engage in recreational activities.

Meet with Our Spinal Cord Injury Specialists

For questions or information on how to be admitted or how to access our programs at Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital, please call our referral line at 801-646-8000. Our referral specialist will work with your current provider to obtain necessary medical records and verify your insurance benefits for coverage.

Learn About Spinal Cord Injuries From a PM&R Specialist

Kevin Park, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at U of U Health, talks with Good Things Utah about the rise in spinal cord injury cases and more.

Rehabilitation Resources

Self-Care Guide for Spinal Cord Injury Patients

The goal of rehabilitation is to help you design a lifestyle that will allow you to function as independently as possible within the realm of your ability. This manual covers many things you learn while you are in the hospital that you can use at home. Yes, You Can! courtesy of Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Learn What You Can Do at Home

Spinal Cord Injury & Fertility

Some patients with a spinal cord injury may have erectile and/or ejaculatory dysfunction. Our fertility specialists are highly trained in treating these types of disorders to help get your sexual function back. 

Learn More about Our Fertility Treatment Options

Hear From Our Patients & Specialists