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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.
Spinal cord injury, SCI
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
- Loss of 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, or help them to breathe.
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:
Have someone assist you.
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 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 football helmet or pads if a spinal injury is suspected.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your 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: Elsevier Mosby; 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: Elsevier Saunders; 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: Elsevier Saunders; 2009:chap 16, section A.
- Last reviewed on 4/16/2013
- C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.
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