Imagine cruising along in life doing ordinary things like working, raising a family, or attending school when suddenly, without warning, the ability to perform essential life functions disappears. No more baseball with your kids, country road travels to unwind, or even normal intimacy with your spouse. You may not even be able to feed yourself, shower, get dressed alone, or breathe without the assistance of a ventilator. This shocking reality affects over 12,000 people annually to varying degrees through spinal cord injuries. The life-changing ramifications are enormous; most people cannot imagine dealing with these issues. The long-term consequences include physical challenges, health complications, and mental health impacts. While rehab, therapy, and hard work can help improve the outlook – life never returns to what it was before the injury.
When damage or disease occurs in the spinal cord, sensory and motor conduction across the injured site become disrupted. The range of impairment can be broad. Tetraplegia means impairment of function in the arms, trunk, legs, and pelvic area. Paraplegia spares arm function but affects the trunk, legs, and pelvic area.
Spinal cord injuries (SCI) are classified as complete or incomplete. A complete spinal cord injury causes permanent damage to the area of the spinal cord that is affected. The injury is classified as incomplete if some function or sensation remains below the level of injury, including sensation at the lowest segment of the spinal cord. As broad as the range of damage is, so is the range of functional loss. While some may learn to ambulate with assistive devices, others may face a lifetime of wheelchairs and personal care attendants to meet their basic needs.
The long-term consequences include physical challenges, health complications, and mental health impacts. Complications include pressure sores, urinary tract infections, and respiratory compromise.
Whether the spinal cord damage results from injury or disease, common patterns exist, including loss of movement, sensation, changes in reflexes, and autonomic dysfunction (bowel/bladder, sexual health issues, and loss of ability to sweat).