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Spinal cord injury

Spinal cord injury (SCI) is always an emergency: it could lead to chronic pain, paralysis or death.


  • Spinal cord injury (SCI) is always an emergency: it could lead to chronic pain, paralysis or death.
  • SCI occurs when trauma e.g. from a car accident, results in damage to the spinal cord or severs nerves to the spinal cord.
  • SCI should be suspected after any back, neck or head injury.
  • Persons with suspected spinal injury should be immobilized and not moved unless in imminent danger.

What causes spinal cord injury?

Spinal cord injury (SCI) is always an emergency as it could lead to chronic painful conditions, permanent paralysis or even death.

SCI occurs when a traumatic event (usually a car, diving or sport accident) results in damage to cells within the spinal cord or severs the nerve tracts that relay signals up and down the spinal cord. The most common types of SCI include contusion (bruising of the spinal cord) and compression (caused by pressure on the spinal cord).

Other types of injuries include lacerations (severing or tearing of nerve fibres, such as damage caused by a gunshot wound), and central cord syndrome (specific damage to the corticospinal tracts in the neck region of the spinal cord).

The types of disability associated with SCI vary greatly depending on the severity of the injury, the segment of the spinal cord at which the injury occurs, and which nerve fibres are damaged. Usually the higher up in the cervical spine the injury, the greater the damage.

If treated correctly, most people with SCI regain some functions between a week and six months after injury, but the likelihood of spontaneous recovery diminishes after six months. Rehabilitation strategies can minimise long-term disability.

What are the symptoms and signs of spinal cord injury?

  • Person is lying with head, neck or back in an awkward position
  • Severe pain in head, neck or back
  • Weakness, tingling or loss of sensation below the point of injury
  • Inability to move arms or legs
  • Bruises on head, neck, shoulders or back
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Difficulty breathing

Even if the person does not have any of these symptoms, but you know he or she has sustained a back, neck or head injury, treat it as a spinal injury. If a head injury was sustained and the person has disturbed level of consciousness, suspect a spinal injury as well.

Get help immediately if

You suspect a spinal injury. The sooner a person is treated in hospital, the greater the chances for recovery.

First aid

  • If you suspect a spinal injury, do not move the person unless he or she is in imminent danger from, for example, traffic or fire, or you need to perform CPR.
  • If a person is in water, don’t move him to land. Keep him lying face up until help arrives. The water will immobilise the spine.
  • If the person must be moved, there should be one person controlling the neck and head to keep them in alignment, and at least two people on either side of the person to lift him without moving the spine.
  • Treat other life-threatening injuries while waiting for help to arrive.
  • Don’t remove helmets unless you need to perform CPR.
  • Keep the person warm.
  • Don’t give anything to eat or drink.

Last updated: July 2009

The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.