Note: The first four sections below are taken from the Canadian Paraplegic Association publication, Life after a Spinal Cord Injury. If you would like a copy of this publication please contact the SCI BC InfoLine.

Your Spine

Your spine consists of 33 vertebrae:

7 cervical vertebrae – neck (C1 to C7)
12 thoracic vertebrae (T1 to T12)
5 lumbar vertebrae – lower back (L1 to L5)
5 sacral vertebrae (S1 to S5)
4 fused vertebrae that form the coccyx

The vertebrae are attached and held together by ligaments on both sides of the spine. The Vertebrae are separated from each other by a disk made of cartilaginous material. When we move, these disks absorb and reduce the pressure between the vertebrae.

The spine may be compared to a flexible tube. The holes in the centre of each vertebrae form the spinal canal. Through the interior passes a ‘cord’ of nervous tissue called the ‘spinal cord’. The spine’s principal function is to protect the spinal cord.

Your Spinal Cord

The spinal cord which is made of nerve cells and nerve fibres, resembles a cable about the size of your little finger.

Approximately 21 inches (52.5cm) in length, it begins at the base of your brain and passes through the interior of each of your cervical and thoracic vertebrae. It ends at the upper level of your lumbar vertebrae (the superior border of L2), where it branches into a collection on nerves that extend down to the region of the coccyx.

Simply put, the spinal cord works like a two-way telephone line. Via this communication pathway, the brain sends and receives messages to and from different parts of your body. This is how it can ensure the proper functioning of the vital organs as well as muscle movement. Commands from your brain and sensations from your body are translated into a nervous impulse comparable to an electric current. The impulse travels the length of the spinal cord and the nerves.

Spinal Cord Injury

A spinal cord injury (SCI) damages the communication pathway between the brain and certain parts of the body. Depending on the extent of the damage and its location in the cord, serious and permanent physical consequences will result in varying degrees of severity. Limbs or organs will not function as they did before.

Injury to the spinal cord, also known as a spinal lesion, can affect certain physiological functions. The ability to move muscles, as well as the sensation of touch may be affected. Blood circulation, the elimination of urine and intestinal wastes, and respiratory capacity may be altered. These are just a few examples of how the body might change after a Spinal Cord Injury.

Paraplegia and Quadraplegia

The level of paralysis is determined by where the damage occurs in the neck or back.

Paraplegia: is the result of a spinal cord lesion located at the level of the thoracic vertebrae or lower down in the lumbar/or sacro-coccygeal regions. Loss of motor function or sensation affects the legs and the lower trunk.

Quadriplegia (or Tetraplegia), is the result of a spinal cord lesion at the level of the neck (cervical vertebrae). A loss of motor function and sensation or of both together, occurs in the legs, arms and trunk, including the thorax (chest). The severity of the loss does vary.

Causes of Spinal Cord Injury
  • Traumatic injury resulting from physical trauma to the spinal cord, caused by motor vehicle crashes, falls, sports injuries, or other incidents.
  • Acquired diseases that can cause tumors or cysts on the spine, or viral or bacterial infections (including polio). Other diseases such as multiple sclerosis can, in some cases, deteriorate to the point of causing lesions on the spinal cord that can result in paralysis.
  • Congenital disorders, such as spina bifida, where the spinal cord is malformed or exposed at birth.
Is there a cure?

Currently there is no cure for spinal cord injury. Although researchers continue to make steady progress toward understanding spinal cord injury and new strategies to overcome it, a cure is likely to be a long way off in the future.

In the meantime, researchers have made a number of advancements that allow individuals with a spinal cord injury to maximize their potential through neuroprotection, rehabilitation, assistive devices, and many other aspects of emotional and physical recovery.

SCI BC is a strong supporter of spinal cord injury research and is a proud partner with ICORD, UBC and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute’s world-leading spinal cord injury research centre located within the Blusson Spinal Cord Centre on the Vancouver General Hospital campus. SCI BC also works with the Rick Hansen Institute and other researchers and research organisations across Canada and around the world.

Spinal Cord Injury in BC

(Source: Rick Hansen Insititute)

  • Over 12,000 people in British Columbia with spinal cord injuries that affect every aspect of their lives.
  • Approximately 500 new SCI cases every year in British Columbia.
  • The estimated lifetime cost of living with an SCI in BC is $1.6 – 3 million.
  • The annual increase in economic burden of SCI in British Columbia is $1.1 billion.
  • The leading cause of injury is motor vehicle accidents (35%), followed by falls (17%).
Spinal Cord Injury in Canada

(Source: Rick Hansen Institute)

  • Estimated 85,556 people with spinal cord injury in Canada.
  • Approx 44,000 sustained a SCI as a result of traumatic injury (motor vehicle crashes, falls etc).
  • Estimated 4,529 new cases of spinal cord injury in Canada each year, 1,786 as the result of traumatic injury and the rest as a consequence of diseases and other non-traumatic causes.
  • Almost half of new traumatic injuries occur in people 15 to 39 (mainly male) as a result of motor vehicle accidents, sporting accidents and other external causes.
  • The incidence and prevalence of non-traumatic SCI is on the rise. Approximately 50 per cent of new cases of SCI result from non-traumatic injuries caused by infection or disease (including cancer) rather than traumatic causes.
  • Cases of SCI are projected to increase over the next two decades, with the number of new traumatic and non-traumatic cases increasing from the 4,700 estimated for 2010 to 6,400 new cases estimated in 2030; and from the current estimated 86,000 persons living with SCI in 2010 to 121,000 persons in 2030.
  • Canada’s ageing population is having an impact on the mean age of people who suffer a SCI and the type of care and services required. In the coming decades people who suffer a spinal cord injury are likely to also be older and the causes of these injuries will shift e.g. older people falling rather than young males in motor vehicle collisions.
  • The current annual economic burden of traumatic SCI in Canada is approximately $3.6 billion, of which $1.8 billion is associated with direct health care costs.

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