Signs and symptoms of SCI

Published: April 24, 2005
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The signs and symptoms of a spinal cord injury depend on two factors:

  • The location of the injury. In general, injuries that are higher in the spinal cord produce more paralysis. For example, a spinal cord injury at the neck level may cause paralysis in both arms and legs and make it impossible to breathe without a respirator, while a lower injury may affect only the legs and lower parts of the body.
  • The severity of the injury. Spinal cord injuries are classified as partial or complete, depending on how much of the cord width is damaged. With a partial spinal cord injury, the spinal cord is able to convey some messages to or from the brain. So people with partial spinal cord injury retain some sensation and possibly some Motor function below the affected area. A complete injury is defined by complete loss of motor function and sensation below the area of injury. However, even in a complete injury, the spinal cord is almost never completely cut in half. Doctors use the term complete to describe a large amount of damage to the spinal cord.
  • Spinal cord injuries of any kind may result in one or more of the following signs and symptoms:

    • Pain or an intense stinging sensation caused by damage to the nerve fibers in the spinal cord
    • Loss of movement
    • Loss of sensation, including the ability to feel heat, cold and touch
    • Loss of bowel or bladder control
    • Exaggerated Reflex activities or spasms
    • Changes in sexual function, sexual sensitivity and fertility
    • Difficulty breathing, coughing or clearing secretions from the lungs

    Emergency signs and symptoms of spinal cord injury after a head injury or accident may include:

    • Fading in and out of consciousness
    • Extreme back pain or pressure in the neck, head or back
    • Weakness, incoordination or paralysis in any part of the body
    • Numbness, tingling or loss of sensation in the hands, fingers, feet or toes
    • Loss of bladder or bowel control
    • Difficulty with balance and walking
    • Impaired breathing after injury
    • An oddly positioned or twisted neck or back