Understanding spinal cord injury

We know that the amount of information available about spinal cord injury can be daunting. In this video one of our SCI Nurse Specialists provides basic information about the affects and management of a spinal cord injury (SCI).

In the paragraph below we have provided simple answers to a number of common questions that we are asked about SCI. For more details we also have a wide range of fact sheets and you can visit our Your Stories section where people share their experiences of living with spinal cord injury.


What is spinal cord injury (SCI)?
The spinal cord is an extension of the brain and is made up of a thick bundle of nerves. The nerves carry messages from our brain to the rest of our body. These messages help us to move our body, feel pressure and control vital functions like breathing, blood pressure, bladder and bowels.  When the spinal cord is damaged, the communication between our brain and the rest of our body is disrupted, resulting in a loss of movement and sensation from below the level of injury. Damage to the spinal cord can be caused by a trauma like an accident, or as a result of infection or disease.

How will spinal cord injury affect my body?
The higher up you damage the spinal cord, the more movement and sensation will be lost.

  • Damage to your spinal cord in your back will result in paraplegia. Paraplegia affects the movement and sensation in your legs and possibly some stomach muscles.
  • Damage to the spinal cord in your neck will result in tetraplegia. Tetraplegia affects movement and sensation in all four limbs, as well as stomach and some chest muscles.

It is important to be aware that the loss of movement and sensation will vary from person to person, even with those who have damaged their spinal cord in the same place.

What are the letters and numbers healthcare professionals keep mentioning?
The use of letters and numbers refers to the level of your injury. If you have injured the spinal cord in your neck, you will have injured one of your cervical nerves (1-8). An injury like this would be referred to as C1 etc. If you have injured the spinal cord in your back, you will have injured either thoracic nerves (1-12) or lumber nerves (1-5). A back injury would be referred to as T6, L1 etc.

What does complete/incomplete mean?
Complete or incomplete injury refers to the type of injury you have sustained. If both sides of your body are affected and there is no muscle function or voluntary movement or sensation from the injury level and below, then your injury is complete. Healthcare professionals might refer to your injury as C3/T6/L3 complete. If you have some muscle function below your injury, such as being able to move one limb or you still have some sensation then your injury is incomplete. Healthcare professionals might refer to your injury as C4/T8/L2 incomplete. As emergency and medical treatment advances, incomplete injuries are more common.

How long will I be in hospital / in a Spinal Cord Injury Centre?
After your initial injury you are likely to be in hospital for a period of three to nine months, depending on your level of injury, to recover and rehabilitate. It is not possible to be exact with the length of time, as it will vary according to your individual needs.

When will I get better?
As the spinal cord recovers from the shock of the injury, you may make some progress.  However, it may take approximately two years for you to reach your full potential with regard to movement and/or sensation following your injury.  Progress and adaptation is possible, but it is important to remember that there is not yet any repair for spinal cord injury, but research into this continues.

What will I be able to do in the future?
Although spinal cord injury may disrupt the plans and activities you had, life does go on and it can be as rich and fulfilling as before.

Even though sex and fertility can be affected, both spinal cord injured men and women can go on to have satisfying sex lives and many may become parents.

Some people return to their previous jobs, whilst others use the opportunity to retrain for a new profession and/or start new hobbies.

Our services support you as you rebuild your life after a spinal cord injury. Find out more

Hear more about how our Support Network Team can offer advice and support to SCI people and their families.

Membership of SIA is free and gives you access to a network of support for you and your family as well as   resources about spinal cord injury.  Join today

After reading this page, why not head over to our Resources Section for more fact sheets to download.