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The spinal cord contains the nerves that carry messages between your brain and body. The cord passes through your neck and back. A spinal cord injury is very serious because it can cause loss of movement (paralysis) below the site of the injury.
A spinal cord injury may be caused by:
- Bullet or stab wound
- Traumatic injury to the face, neck, head, chest, or back (for example, a car accident)
- Diving accident
- Electric shock
- Extreme twisting of the middle of the body
- Landing on the head during a sports injury
- Fall from a great height
Symptoms of a spinal cord injury may include:
- Head that is in an unusual position
- Numbness or tingling that spreads down an arm or leg
- Difficulty walking
- Paralysis (loss of movement) of arms or legs
- No bladder or bowel control
- Shock (pale, clammy skin; bluish lips and fingernails; acting dazed or semiconscious)
- Lack of alertness (unconsciousness)
- Stiff neck, headache, or neck pain
Never move anyone who you think may have a spinal injury, unless it is absolutely necessary. For example, if you need to get the person out of a burning car.)
Keep the person absolutely still and safe until medical help arrives.
If the person is not alert or responding to you:
Do not roll the person over unless the person is vomiting or choking on blood, or you need to check for breathing. If you need to roll the person over:
Two people are needed.
One person should be located at the person's head; the other at the person's side.
Keep the person's head, neck, and back in line with each other while you roll him or her onto one side.
- DO NOT bend, twist, or lift the person's head or body.
- DO NOT attempt to move the person before medical help arrives unless it is absolutely necessary.
- DO NOT remove a helmet if a spinal injury is suspected.
Call immediately for emergency medical assistance if
Call you local emergency number (such as 911) if you think someone has a spinal cord injury. DO NOT move the person unless there is urgent danger.
The following may lower your risk of spinal injury:
- Wear seat belts.
- Do not drink and drive.
- Do not dive into pools, lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water, particularly if you cannot determine the depth of the water or if the water is not clear.
- Do not tackle or dive into a person with your head.
Hockberger RS, Kaji AH, Newton E. Spinal injuries. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2009:chap 40.
Torg JS. Cervical Spine Injuries: 1. Cervical Spine Injuries in the Adult. In: DeLee JC, Drez D Jr, Miller MD, eds. DeLee and Drez’s Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2009:chap 16, section A.
Pizzutillo PD, Herman MJ. Cervical Spine Injuries: 2. Cervical Spine Injuries in the Child. In: DeLee JC, Drez D Jr, Miller MD, eds. DeLee and Drez’s Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2009:chap 16, section A.
- Last Reviewed on 05/02/2011
- Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington, School of Medicine; Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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This page was last updated: May 31, 2013