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Injuries of the Spine and Spinal Cord


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Reviewed/Revised Nov 2023
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What is the spine and spinal cord?

Your spine is your backbone. It's actually a long line of 24 bones called vertebrae plus your tailbone (sacrum). Vertebrae start below your skull in your neck and go all the way down to your pelvis. Vertebrae bear most of your body's weight.

There is a hole through each vertebra. The holes line up to make a tunnel called the spinal canal that runs the length of your spine. Your spinal cord lies inside the spinal canal.

Your spinal cord is a bundle of nerves like an electrical cable that carries messages back and forth between your brain and the rest of your body. The spinal cord is very delicate, which is why it's protected inside the spinal canal.

  • Signals from the brain tell your body what to do, such as move your arms or legs

  • Signals to the brain carry information from your body such as what you're touching or where it hurts

  • Most injuries of the spine and spinal cord are caused by things like car crashes, falls, and playing sports

  • An injury to the spinal area can affect your bones, nerves, or spinal cord

  • Spine injuries are painful

  • Spinal cord injuries can make you weak or paralyzed, cause decreased sensation (feeling), and cause problems having sex, urinating, and passing stool

  • Injuries of the spine and spinal cord sometimes need surgery and physical therapy

If you think you have injured your spine or spinal cord, see a doctor right away.

How the Spine Is Organized

A column of bones called vertebrae make up the spine (spinal column). The vertebrae protect the spinal cord, a long, fragile structure contained in the spinal canal, which runs through the center of the spine. Between the vertebrae are disks composed of cartilage, which help cushion the spine and give it some flexibility.

How the Spine Is Organized

Spinal nerves: Emerging from the spinal cord between the vertebrae are 31 pairs of spinal nerves. Each nerve emerges in two short branches (roots).

The motor roots carry commands from the brain and spinal cord to other parts of the body, particularly to skeletal muscles.

The sensory roots carry information to the brain from other parts of the body.

Cauda equina: The spinal cord ends about three fourths of the way down the spine, but a bundle of nerves extends beyond the cord. This bundle is called the cauda equina because it resembles a horse's tail. The cauda equina carries nerve impulses to and from the legs.

What causes spine and spinal cord injuries?

Injuries of the spine and spinal cord are caused by:

  • Car crashes

  • Falls

  • Sports accidents

  • Violence (such as a gunshot)

What are the symptoms of spine and spinal cord injuries?

Symptoms of injuries to the spine and spinal cord depend on where the injury is and how severe the damage is. Symptoms include:

  • Pain in your neck or back

  • Weakness or paralysis (inability to move part of your body)

  • Loss of sensation (numbness)

  • Trouble controlling when you urinate or pass stool

The parts of your body that are affected depend on where the spinal cord is injured. For example, if the spinal cord is damaged in your lower back, you may lose movement and sensation in your legs but still be able to use your arms. But if the spinal cord is damaged in your neck, both your arms and legs may be affected. If the spinal cord is damaged high in your neck, you may not be able to breathe without assistance.

Your weakness and numbness may last a short time or be permanent.

How can doctors tell if I have injuries to my spine and spinal cord?

Doctors will ask about your symptoms and examine you. They'll do tests, such as:

  • X-rays

  • CT (computed tomography) scan

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)

How do doctors treat spine and spinal cord injuries?

Don't move a person with spinal cord injuries yourself—wait for emergency personnel to arrive.

Emergency personnel immobilize the injured person's neck (keep it from moving) to prevent further damage to the spinal cord and vertebrae. They may:

  • Strap the person to a firm, padded board

  • Put the person in a rigid collar

Doctors may also treat injuries to the spinal cord and vertebrae using:

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