Spinal Cord Injury

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At the UCLA Health Spine Center, our experts diagnose, manage and treat all spinal injuries and conditions. Call 310-319-3475 to connect with a spine specialist.

What You Should Know About Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord connects the brain to all the nerves in body. It passes through the center part of the spinal column and is protected by the surrounding vertebra (bone) and soft tissues. Any Injury to the Spinal Column due to trauma, tumor or infection can damage the spinal cord. The area where the spinal cord is injured dictates the level of function, as dysfunction develops below that specific level of injury. Spinal cord injuries are classified as either incomplete or complete. Incomplete injuries show preservation of some function below the injured level. Complete injuries are characterized by a total lack of both motor and sensory functions below the level of the injury.


Spinal cord injury presents with severe pain, limited mobility, or paralysis after a specific incident or trauma to the spine.


Patients with spinal cord injury need to be thoroughly examined to assess any preservation of function, including peri-anal and rectal examinations and testing of all reflexes and motor and sensory functions. Radiographic studies (x-rays, CT scan and MRI) need to be performed following the injury or later to identify the injured spinal column and the traversing spinal cord to identify any level that needs to be treated surgically to take the pressure off the spinal cord or to stabilize a damaged bony structure that is normally protecting the spinal cord.


Surgery to correct a spinal deformity that narrows the spinal canal is often performed but is unlikely to reverse any major spinal cord dysfunction; however, removing bone or disc material from the spinal canal in a timely basis can promote the recovery of an incompletely injured cord. Patients with cervical spinal fractures are often placed in traction to try to realign the spinal canal to relieve any ongoing pressure on the spinal cord. Some spinal injuries that result in spinal cord trauma are stable and do not require surgery. In the cervical spine, fractures are sometimes treated with immobilization devices such as a halo external fixation device. Unstable fractures in the thoraco-lumbar region may require instrumented fusion with bone screws or hooks connected together with metallic rods (fusion).