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Spinal Cord Injury

An image of a white spinal cord on a black figure

The Spinal Cord

The spinal cord measures about 18 inches long and extends from the base of the brain down the middle of the back, to about the waist. It is encased within the spinal column, a series of bony vertebrae that forms the backbone. Nerves within the spinal cord carry “messages” back and forth from the brain to the spinal nerves along the spinal tract.

The spinal vertebrae are named according to their location. The eight vertebrae in the neck are the cervical vertebrae, or C-1 through C-8. The thoracic vertebrae are the 12 vertebrae in the chest, or T-1 through T-12. The first thoracic vertebra, T-1, is where the top rib attaches. Lower down, between the thoracic vertebrae and the pelvis, are the five lumbar vertebrae, or L-1 through L-5, and below that are the five sacral vertebrae, S-1 through S-5.

A young woman in a wheelchair in a group of people wearing athletic clothing

Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord injury (SCI) is damage to the spinal cord that results in a loss of mobility or feeling. Depending on the location and extent of the damage, the injury may cause partial or complete paralysis. The spinal cord does not have to be severed in order for a loss of functioning to occur. In fact, in most people with SCI, the spinal cord is intact. In the United States, approximately 11,000 people per year sustain spinal cord injuries—at a rate of 30 new injuries each day.

In general, the higher in the spinal column the injury occurs, the more dysfunction a person will experience. Injuries in the cervical area usually result in quadriplegia or loss of function in the arms and legs. SCIs in the thoracic region usually affect the chest and the legs and result in paraplegia. Injuries to the five lumbar vertebrae (L-1 thru L-5) and similarly to the five sacral vertebra (S-1 thru S-5) generally result in some loss of functioning in the hips and legs. In MAPPING STEM CELL RESEARCH, Allison Kessler’s L-1 injury left her paralyzed from the waist down, while Carrie Kaufman’s C-5 injury left her with mobility in only one arm.

Treatments

There is currently no treatment that will repair the spinal cord and restore full functioning to the injured person. Some treatments can decrease the damage if given at the time of the injury. Certain steroid drugs reduce swelling, which is a common cause of secondary damage at the time of injury. Injections of large amounts of cold saline solution, started at the time of injury, seem to hold some promise. There are experimental drugs that appear to reduce loss of function, but they are not completely understood. Finally, medical research shows stem cell transplants may have the potential to reduce or cure paralysis caused by spinal injury.

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