Understanding spinal cord injury

A spinal cord injury has a life-long effect on the body, but information is often technical and confusing. Easy-to-understand information can help you understand what a spinal cord injury is, and how it will affect you or a loved one.

More than 2.5 million people around the world have a spinal cord injury, 50,000 of these people are living in the UK.

Often teamed with medical jargon and information overload, spinal cord injury (SCI) can be difficult to understand.

Damage to the spinal cord can be a results of trauma like an accident, or as a result of infection or disease.


If you sustain a SCI it means that one or more sections of your spinal cord is damaged. Your spinal cord is an extension of your brain, made up of a thick bundle of nerves.

The spinal cord is attached to the brain and runs the length of your back and spine. The nerves in the spinal cord help carry messages from the brain to the rest of the body. These messages control everything from movement to blood pressure and breathing.

How a SCI will affect you depends on what part of your spinal cord is damaged, and can vary for each individual.

The spinal cord is made up of three groups: one in your neck called the cervical nerves; one in your back called the thoracic nerves; a second group in your back called the lumber nerves. Each group is made up of multiple sections of the spinal cord.

Doctors sometimes use the first letter of these groups to describe where a SCI is, for example C1, T1 or L1.


The effect a SCI has depends on where the injury takes place. When the spinal cord is damaged, the communication between the brain and the body is disrupted. This results in a loss of movement and sensation from below the level of injury.

A SCI in your back in groups T or L will result in paraplegia. Paraplegia affects the movement and sensation in your legs, and possibly some stomach muscles.

A SCI in your neck in group C will result in tetraplegia. Tetraplegia affects movement and sensation in all four limbs, stomach muscles and some chest muscles.

Depending on how the injury affects you, doctors will use the words complete and incomplete. If you have some muscle function below your injury, this will be classed as an incomplete injury. If both sides of your body are affected and there is no muscle function, this is class as a complete injury.

The way a SCI affects loss of movement and sensation varies for each individual, even if the injury occurs in the same place.


If you or a loved one has sustained a SCI, there is support available to help you continue living your life.


Spinal Injuries Association

Call: 0800 980 0501
Chat online

Back Up

Call: 020 8875 1805

Have you or someone you know experienced a spinal cord injury? Let us know on Twitter and Instagram.

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