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Spinal Cord Injury (SCI)

Each year, almost 18,000 people in the U.S. sustain spinal cord injuries that change their lives forever. SCIs impact their ability to do everyday things that many people take for granted.

At the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute, our team of SCI and spine disease experts helps you regain your independence.

Contact the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute

To learn more about spinal cord injury rehabilitation or to refer a patient, call 1-877-287-3422.

What Is a Spinal Cord Injury?

An SCI is damage to the column of nerves that sends signals from the brain to other body parts. These vital nerves branch off from the spinal cord and affect muscles and feeling in the legs, arms, and body.

SCIs can cause people to lose the ability to perform basic functions, such as:

  • Walking.
  • Eating.
  • Talking.

The effects of SCIs vary, depending on which nerves in the spinal cord you damaged. Also, the degree of loss of body functions depends on how severe the injury is.

If you've severed or completely cut the spinal cord, you'll lose function from any of the nerves below the injury site.

Spinal cord injury types

The American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) labels SCIs as either complete or incomplete.

A complete SCI means the injury has severed the spinal cord, cutting off the nerves below it. This means there's no possibility for function below the site of the SCI.

Doctors call this an ASIA A injury.

An incomplete injury damages the nerve in the spine but doesn't sever the spinal cord.

Doctors further classify incomplete SCIs based on the extent of injury:

  • ASIA B injury. You have some feeling but no motor function from the nerves below the SCI site.
  • ASIA C injury. You have sensation and some movement. You can move less than half the muscle groups affected by spinal nerves below the injury.
  • ASIA D. You have some feeling and greater movement than ASIA C. You can move more than half the muscle groups affected by spinal nerves below the SCI.

Doctors also label SCIs based on the injured nerve and part of the spine:

  • Cervical (top part) spine.
  • Thoracic (upper-mid part) spine.
  • Lumbar (lower-mid part) spine.
  • Sacral (bottom part) spine.

For instance, a cervical spine injury to the:

  • First nerve is a C1 injury.
  • Fourth nerve is a C4 injury.

Likewise, a thoracic spine injury to the first nerve is a T14 injury.

Cervical SCIs cause the most severe impairment, followed by thoracic SCIs.

Spinal cord injury causes

SCIs most often result from:

  • Motor vehicle accidents (the #1 cause of SCIs).
  • Falls (the leading cause for people over 65).
  • Gunshot or knife wounds.
  • Sports injuries, such as from diving into a shallow pool or tackling in football.
  • Medical causes (e.g., tumors or swelling that puts pressure on the spinal nerves).

Spinal cord injury risk factors

Knowing you have one or more risk factors can help you prevent or lower your risk of an SCI.

These include:

  • Being a young male adult. More than half of SCIs happen between ages 16 and 30. Men make up 80%.
  • Having osteoporosis. This can weaken spinal bones and cause more nerve damage if you fall.
  • Being over 65. People over 65 are more likely to fall due to lower muscle tone, poorer eyesight, and other reasons. They're also more likely to get hurt when they fall.
  • Taking part in higher-risk sports like football, rugby, skiing, or snowboarding.

Spinal cord injury complications

For most people, SCIs are life-changing.

The health impacts can range from somewhat minor to extremely severe. It depends on the injury site and if it's a complete or an incomplete SCI.

Complications of SCIs can include:

  • Trouble breathing.
  • Heart problems, such as a slow heartbeat or low blood pressure.
  • Urinary tract infections.
  • Digestive issues, such as constipation or inability to control the bowels.
  • Decreased sexual function.
  • Chronic pain.
  • Pressure sores.
  • Depression or social anxiety.

Your care team will watch for any of these complications. They can help you take steps to avoid them and can treat them if they do occur.

How to prevent a spinal cord injury

Motor vehicle wrecks cause most SCIs.

You can prevent them by:

  • Always wearing a seatbelt.
  • Never texting or doing other distracting tasks when driving.
  • Never driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Never riding with someone who is driving under the influence.

Falls are another common cause of SCIs, especially among seniors.

To reduce your chances of falling:

  • Keep the floor clear of clutter.
  • Install grab bars in the bathroom.
  • Stay active to keep muscles strong and decrease the risk of osteoporosis.
  • Talk to your doctor about reducing or stopping medicine that may cause drowsiness or confusion.

Here are other steps you can take to prevent injury to yourself or others:

  • Wear proper protective equipment — such as a helmet and padding — during sports and recreational activities.
  • Never dive into a body of water without being sure it's deep enough (ideally at least 10 feet deep).
  • Don't dive into water without being certain that there are no rocks or other hard objects below the surface.
  • Practice gun safety, including locking up guns in a safe place.
  • Avoid extreme sports, such as bungee jumping and skydiving.

Lastly, never move someone who may have a severe injury or trauma to the spine. Moving them can make a spinal cord injury far worse.

Let emergency responders assess and move the person.

Why choose the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute for spinal cord injury care?

Because the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute:

  • Is one of only 14 programs in the U.S. designated as a spinal cord injury model system. This means we're national leaders in research and provide the highest level of care.
  • Works only with people suffering SCIs at our exclusive 20-bed spinal cord injury unit at UPMC Mercy.
  • Offers cutting-edge treatments you can't find elsewhere. These include new drugs that lessen the impact of spine trauma and precision surgeries to repair spinal cord damage.

Doctors diagnose SCIs by:

  • Testing your response to touch at various points in the body.
  • Asking you to try to move different muscle groups to see which nerves you damaged and by how much.
  • Ordering imaging tests such as a CT scan, an x-ray, an MRI, or a combination of these. These tests help the doctor see the bones, spinal disks, and blood clots or tumors that can damage nerves.

Spinal Cord Injury Treatment

As one of the country's leading rehab programs, the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute offers state-of-the-art technology and complete services to help you recover.

Technologies like those at the Robotics and Gaming Center help you relearn walking and do daily tasks. This helps you live a more independent life after your rehab stay.

Our SCI rehab team includes experts in:

  • Physical therapy.
  • Occupational therapy.
  • Psychology.
  • Neuropsychology.
  • Case management.
  • Nutrition.
  • Job training and skills development.
  • Connections to community-based supports.

Our SCI experts

Training future spinal cord injury experts

The UPMC Rehabilitation Institute is home to southwestern Pa.'s only SCI fellowship program.

This is where our fellowship-trained experts teach the next generation of SCI doctors from around the country.