What is a spinal cord injury?

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Spinal cord injuries (SCI) are damage to any part of the spinal cord or nerves, causing a loss in function, such as mobility or feeling.

Key points

  • A spinal cord injury is damage to the spinal cord or nerves
  • It can be caused by trauma, for example through a car crash, disease or degenerative conditions
  • People with a spinal cord injury are all affected differently but may experience a loss of mobility, feeling, bowel and bladder function, blood pressure or lung problems

Up to 500,000 people sustain a spinal cord injury around the world each year and about 20,800 Australians live with a spinal cord injury.

These injuries are commonly caused by trauma involving motor vehicle accidents, falls, diving and acts of violence.

They may also be work or sports-related, or be caused by diseases such as cancer or degenerative conditions.

The injury can occur at any stage of life, but most commonly occur before the age of 65 as the condition is not age related.

About 80 percent of Australians with a spinal cord injury are male and the age group most frequently contracting a spinal cord injury is 15 to 24 year olds.

Importantly, a person with a spinal injury doesn’t have to sever their spinal cord to experience a loss of functioning. The damage to the spinal cord can be caused by compression, bruising or inflammation depending on how the injury occurred.

An acute spinal cord injury is specifically caused by a traumatic injury.

Symptoms of spinal cord injury

A person with a spinal injury may experience a loss of function below the neck, known as quadriplegia, or a loss of function below the chest, called paraplegia.

The loss of function can be complete or incomplete, depending on whether all feeling and movement below the injury site is lost or only some sensory function.

The point at which the spinal cord remains undamaged is referred to as the neurological level of the injury.

Other health complications from a spinal injury may include:

  • Urinary tract infections
  • Loss of bladder and bowel function
  • Pressure ulcers
  • Low blood pressure
  • Fractures
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Heart and lung problems
  • Depression
  • Muscle spasms
  • Changes in sexual function and fertility
  • Ongoing pain

Up to 18 months after the injury to the spinal cord, the swelling of the spinal cord is likely reduced which may allow some function to return. Unfortunately, only a very small number of people with a spinal cord injury recover all function.

Spinal cord injuries are life-changing and can lead to people being highly emotional because of the impact of the injury on their life.

Rehabilitation, based on the injury, situation and person’s physical and mental health will help a person with a spinal injury in regaining their self-confidence and learning to adapt with their disability.

The rehabilitation team may consist of an occupational therapist, psychiatrist, physiotherapist, dietician, psychologist, speech therapist and social worker among others.

Every person with a spinal cord injury is different and may have different support needs, as well as individual goals about what they want their future to look like.

Support for people with spinal cord injuries

People with spinal cord injuries are likely to be eligible for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) if they meet the other eligibility criteria and their injury affects everyday life.

The NDIS will fund supports needed for a person to complete everyday tasks, participate in the community and develop their skills and independence.

The types of support available may include:

  • Help to get out of bed and move around your home or community
  • Personal care
  • Continence support
  • Household cleaning
  • Garden maintenance
  • Transport
  • Specialist Disability Accommodation suited to your accessibility needs
  • Vehicle modifications
  • Home modifications
  • Physiotherapy or exercise physiology
  • Assistive technology, for example for mobility
  • Support coordination

As every person with a spinal cord injury is different the NDIS will ensure you have an individualised funding package for the exact supports you need.

What support could you use to get the most out of life with a spinal cord injury? Tell us in comments below.

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