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Facts about SCI?

Facts about SCI

What is spinal cord injury (SCI)?

A spinal cord injury or SCI, occurs when trauma (such as a fall or vehicle accident) or disease (such as a tumor or spina bifada) damages the spinal cord, resulting in partial or complete paralysis.

The spinal cord begins at the base of the brain and extends approximately 45cm to 64cm inside the spinal column down the back, containing nerves that carry impulses from the brain to the rest of the body. It continues in the lower spine as the cauda equine, a bundle of free nerves travelling the remainder of the spinal canal. The spinal cord consists of millions of nerve fibers that conduct messages between the brain and the body that allow us to breathe, feel, move and walk.

When the spinal cord or the cauda equine are damaged, nerves in the affected area are no longer able to send messages to and receive messages from the brain, resulting in loss of function and sensation. The level of paralysis is determined by where the damage occurs in the neck or back.

Frequently asked questions about spinal cord injury

What is paraplegia?

Paraplegia is the complete or partial loss of sensation and movement in legs and in part or all of the trunk, usually resulting from damage to the spinal cord or cauda equine in the back.
The severity of the paralysis is determined by the extent of damage to the spinal cord at any particular level. Generally, the injury is considered to be complete if there is complete loss of voluntary movement and sensation below the level of the injury; otherwise, the injury is considered to be incomplete.

What is tetraplegia or quadriplegia?

Tetraplegia, or quadriplegia, is complete or partial paralysis of all four limbs and trunk (from the neck down) resulting from injury to the neck.
The severity of the paralysis is determined by the extent of damage to the spinal cord at any particular level. Generally, the injury is considered to be complete if there is complete loss of voluntary movement and sensation below the level of the injury; otherwise, the injury is considered to be incomplete.

What is a traumatic spinal cord injury?

Traumatic SCI is defined as impairment of the spinal cord or cauda equina function (i.e. motor or sensory deficit) resulting from the application of an external force of any nature (e.g. blunt, penetrating, etc.) and any magnitude. It is initially classified as AIS A, B, C or D or Cauda Equina (including those individuals who progress to AIS E by discharge).

Common types of traumatic injuries occur from vehicle accidents, falls, impact by an object, sports or violence.

What is a non-traumatic spinal cord injury?

Individuals with impairment of the spinal cord or cauda equina function (i.e. motor or sensory deficit) that is not caused either directly or indirectly by an external force.

Common types of non-traumatic injuries include tumour, infection, neurodegenerative diseases, post-surgical complications and spina bifida.

What is the ASIA Impairment Scale (AIS)?

The American Spinal Injury Association Impairment Scale is a multi-dimensional approach to categorizing motor and sensory impairment in individuals with SCI. It identifies sensory and motor levels indicative of the most rostral spinal levels demonstrating “unimpaired” function. The AIS describes a person's functional impairment as a result of their spinal cord injury.

To learn more about how the scale works, visit the SCIRE website.

How do different levels of injury affect the body?

SCH 052.01 Spinal Cord IntermediateThe spinal cord is surrounded by the spinal column which consists of 33 vertebrae – rings of bone that surround the spinal cord. These vertebrae are divided into five segments:

Cervical: The upper seven vertebrae located in the neck (C1-C7). The nerves in this area control head and neck movement, the diaphragm, deltoids, biceps, and muscles controlling the wrist and hands. Damage to the cervical spinal cord generally results in full or partial tetraplegia.

  • C1 – C3: Injury to the C1, C2 and C3 sections of the spinal cord typically results in loss of function to the neck and below, including loss of diaphragm function which necessitates a ventilator for breathing.
  • C4: Significant loss of function at the shoulders and below.
  • C5: Potential loss of functions in shoulders and biceps, complete loss of function below.
  • C6: Limited wrist control and loss of much hand function.
  • C7: Use of arms is retained, but results in a lack of hand dexterity.

Thoracic: The twelve vertebrae that extend through the chest area. (T1 – T12). Arm and hand function is unaffected

  • T1 – T8: Trunk stability is affected by the inability to control abdominal muscles. The higher the injury, the more severe the effects. Some impairment of respiratory muscle function is also seen due to loss of use of the intercostal muscles that move the ribs.
  • T9 – T12: Results in variable loss of trunk and abdominal muscle control

Lumbar: The five vertebrae in the lower back. (L1 – L5). Injury to this area damages the very lowermost tip of the spinal cord (known as the conus medullaris) or the cauda equine which results in decreased control of hips and legs, as well as bladder, bowel and sexual function.

Sacral: The five vertebrae located in the pelvic area. (S1 –S5) As with Lumbar injuries, damage to the sacral nerves can result in decreased control of hips, legs, bladder, bowel and sexual function.

Coccygeal: Four fused vertebrae commonly referred to as the tailbone. An injury to the coccyx is not associated with any significant loss of nerve function.

What happens in acute care?

Acute care is the emergency medical treatment that occurs immediately following a spinal cord injury. Following an injury, first responders ensure that the neck and spine are immobilized to prevent further damage. Once stabilized, scans are taken at the hospital to diagnose the exact location of the injury, and neurological examinations are performed to measure the extent of motor function and sensation.

At this point, medication may be used to reduce swelling and compression on the spinal cord, and surgery may be required to reduce compression and maintain alignment of the spine and the spinal cord. Cervical injuries may require traction and surgical stabilisation, possibly subsequently followed by bracing for a while, while rods and screws may be used to stabilise a damaged spine in the case of thoracic and lumbar injuries.

Additional complications must also be addressed in this phase. For example, someone who sustains a spinal cord injury in an automobile accident may also have incurred traumatic brain injury, blunt abdominal trauma, chest or extremity injuries.

The length of stay in acute care depends on the severity of the injury. Once the patient is stabilized, rehabilitation will begin to maximise function and they will generally be transferred to a rehabilitation facility to receive comprehensive spinal cord injury rehab care.

What happens in rehab care?

Rehabilitation is the process of learning how to navigate through life with a spinal cord injury. Physiotherapy will help regain function where there is potential. A team of therapists will teach self-sufficiency in care so that you can be as independent as possible. You will receive help choosing equipment and assistive devices, and be prepared for your return home.
The rehab centre employs a team of professionals to help you during this process. This team may include:

  • Physiatrist: Physiatrists are medical doctors working in the field of rehabilitation treatment. The physiatrist leading the care team will coordinate your rehabilitation and ensure that you receive proper medical treatment during the process.
  • Physical Therapist (PT): PTs develop and implement physical rehabilitation programs to help you develop muscular potential and regain motor function.
  • Occupational Therapist (OT): OTs teach you techniques to help you in your daily life, providing skills-training for tasks such as getting dressed, cooking, and getting around your home and community. He/she will also help you choose a wheelchair, as well as equipment and assistive devices to compensate for lack of motor function.
  • Psychologist: Psychologists are available to help you work through the emotional and psychological difficulties you face following the drastic change of life resulting from a spinal cord injury. He/she will listen to your concerns and help you work toward through feelings such as fear, anguish and depression.
  • Rehabilitation Counsellor: Rehabilitation counsellors will help you achieve your career, personal, and independent-living goals by providing relevant advice specific to your situation. He/she can prepare for your return home, and help you figure out what you need to return to work or school following discharge from rehab.
  • Nursing Staff: Nursing staff assists the physiatrist in providing your daily care and teach you how to care for yourself for your return home.

Is there a cure for spinal cord injury?

Damage to the spinal cord due to an injury can be permanent and a cure remains elusive. However, new research proves that spinal cord repair and regeneration is possible. More and more researchers around the world believe that a cure for paralysis is possible. Meanwhile, improvements in rehabilitation medicine continue to minimize disability after SCI. In addition, new breakthroughs and discoveries are helping people to better manage quality of life issues associated with spinal cord injury, such as chronic pain, bladder, bowel, pressure injuries, sexual dysfunction, and increased susceptibility to respiratory problems. Even modest improvements in functional ability and reduced secondary complications can make huge quality of life differences for many people with SCI.

RHI defines a cure as any intervention to return a person to greater functionality after a spinal cord injury, whether by protecting the injured spinal cord tissue from secondary degeneration, by promoting neuroplasticity and regeneration, and by rehabilitation strategies that could enhance these regenerative efforts. Cure applies to the newly as well as the chronically injured.

How can I participate in clinical trials?

Deciding to participate in a research study takes careful consideration. There is the commitment and the practical issues such as transportation to factor in. However, many people who take part in SCI research report a sense of accomplishment that comes from knowing they have personally contributed to a body of knowledge that promises to result in improved quality of life for all people with SCI, and ultimately, a cure. Learn more about participating in research.

What are some statistics on spinal cord injury?

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Rick's Message

Rick's Message

I was 15 years old when I was paralyzed from the waist down in a car crash.

RH headshot 1 sm

It took some time to come to terms with my new life, but I never gave up hope.  I know that the days, weeks, and months following a spinal cord injury can be frightening and overwhelming. Everything changes in an instant, and you have so many questions about what the future holds for you. Thankfully, there are a lot of people and organizations out there who are going to help you get through acute care, rehabilitation, and back into your community. You don’t have to do it alone.

A spinal cord injury does not mean the end of your hopes and dreams, or the ability to walk again. This resource section can help you find the latest information on research, clinical trials and rehabilitation techniques that may have an impact on improved function and recovery. You’ll also find peer support, financial resources, and organizations that can help you renovate your home to make it accessible, get assistive devices to help you with everyday tasks, get you back to work or school, and much more. Also included is a listing of rehab centres close to you, and an overview of how spinal cord injury researchers are working to find a cure and develop treatments that will help you lead an active and healthy life. There have been great advances in acute care and treatment and every year there are more discoveries made that provide much hope for the future. When you are ready, take the time to read through these pages and arm yourself with information that will help you on your journey.

"Every time we reach an obstacle, we believe with all our hearts that somehow, some way, there is a way over it, under it, around it or through it."

If someone in your family or a friend has recently sustained a spinal cord injury, these resources are just as important for you. Canada has some of the best healthcare professionals in the world who will ensure that your loved one receives the treatment they need. It’s up to you to be supportive and learn as much as you can to help your family member through their journey from injury to full participation in their community. My family, friends and mentors have been a huge influence on my life, and their support has helped me get through every single day since my accident.

I know this time is incredibly difficult, but it is truly amazing what you can accomplish through courage and determination. Never forget that anything is possible.


Stem Cell Research

Stem Cell Research

What you should know

The use of transplantation cellular therapies (such as stem cells and Schwann cells) has generated tremendous interest and excitement for their potential to promote neuro-regeneration and restoration of function in both chronic and acute SCI. Extensive pre-clinical research has been published on cell transplantation and this continues to be one of the most active areas of scientific research in SCI. However, cost and regulatory hurdles make the clinical translation of this technology extremely challenging. Current clinical trials in this area are largely focused on determining safety and feasibility, with the hope of detecting some signal of efficacy. The completion of large scale definitive clinical trials to establish efficacy are still many years away, even for therapies that are in early safety studies now. 

Rick Hansen Institute's role in stem cell research

At RHI, we acknowledge the promising potential of cellular therapies within the context of a broader neuro-regenerative strategy for SCI. However, we also recognize the challenges associated with conducting clinical trials on such cellular therapies, including the stringent regulatory requirements, the high cost of conducting the trials, and the potential ethical issues related to the source of cells and/or the recruitment of human subjects. We therefore consider clinical trials for stem cell therapies as high risk endeavours that require significant and long term resource commitment. These financial requirements are prohibitive for not-for-profit organizations such as RHI, which depend on limited-term government funding, to actively participate in cellular clinical trials.

Based on the extensive and complex regulatory requirements, cost, recruitment challenges and the general uncertainty of the potential efficacy of cellular therapies, RHI will not participate actively in the funding of human trials of these therapies at this time.

Instead, we will focus on supporting pre-clinical studies that permit a better understanding of the biology of cellular mediated repair of neural tissue, axonal growth and restoration of electrophysiological properties in the damaged spinal cord with the aim of filling the knowledge gaps in understanding cellular repair. We support pre-clinical studies that provide a better understanding of cellular repair process will help identify candidate therapies that have a greater chance of success in human trials and are a more effective use of its limited resources. While not actively funding clinical trials of cell therapies, RHI will consider opportunities to leverage existing RHI resources (e.g. informatics and/or knowledge translation) to facilitate the efforts of researchers who are engaged in such studies.

We encourage you to check out the following links for more information about cellular therapies and RHI’s role in cure-related research:

> Read RHI’s Cure Roadmap which outlines our activities and objectives for the Cure Program

> View RHI's open funding competitions related to CURE.

RHI participated in the Health Charities Forums, led by the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation to develop a Canada-wide strategy to help advance stem cell research and development.  Read more about the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy.

Read a Letter to the Editor of the journal Spinal Cord, published in 2009 that outlines the International Campaign for Cures of Spinal Cord Injury Paralysis' position on the sale of unproven cellular therapies for spinal cord injury.

Read an excellent global summary on the current state of SCI stem cell research, also published in 2009 by the Australia New Zeland SCI Network (ANZSCIN).

Updated 5 November 2014

The Rick Hansen Institute is a Canadian-based not-for-profit organization that drives innovation in spinal cord injury research and care. We strive to improve the lives of people living with SCI in Canada and around the world.



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