Causes of a Spinal Cord Injury

Published: April 24, 2005
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Together, your spinal cord and your brain make up your Central Nervous System, which controls most of the functions of your body. Your spinal cord runs approximately 15 to 17 inches from the base of your brain to your waist and is composed of long nerve fibers that carry messages to and from your brain. These nerve fibers feed into nerve roots that emerge between your Vertebrae — the 33 bones that surround your spinal cord and make up your backbone. There, the nerve fibers organize into Peripheral nerves that extend to the rest of your body.

A spinal cord injury may stem from a sudden, traumatic blow to your spine that fractures, dislocates, crushes or compresses one or more of your vertebrae. It may also result from a gunshot or knife wound that penetrates and cuts your spinal cord. Additional damage may occur over days or weeks because of bleeding, swelling, inflammation and fluid accumulation in and around your spinal cord.

This trauma and damage affects the nerve fibers passing through the injured area and may impair part or all of your corresponding muscles and nerves below the injury site. Spinal injuries occur most frequently in the neck (Cervical) and lower back (Thoracic and Lumbar) areas. A thoracic or lumbar injury can affect leg, bowel and bladder control and sexual function. A cervical injury may affect breathing as well as movements of your upper and lower limbs.

The most common causes of spinal cord injury are:

  • Motor vehicle accidents. Auto and motorcycle accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries, accounting for approximately 40 percent of new spinal cord injuries each year.

  • Acts of violence. About a quarter of spinal cord injuries result from violent encounters, often involving guns and knifes.

  • Falls. Spinal cord injury after age 65 is often caused by a fall. Overall, falls make up 22 percent of spinal cord injuries.

  • Sports and recreation injuries. Athletic activities such as impact sports and diving in shallow water cause up to 10 percent of spinal cord injuries.

  • Diseases.
    Cancer, infections, arthritis and inflammation of the spinal cord also
    cause spinal cord injuries each year. The exact number isn’t known.