Spinal Cord: Explaining the injuries

By Louie Chandler

Spinal cord injuries are one of the most common forms of disablement for disability sport athletes.

Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy

According to spinal cord injury charity Aspire, someone is paralysed by a spinal cord injury or illness every eight hours in the UK alone.

Although there is still no cure, we can now understand how injuries occur and the treatments available afterwards.

The spinal cord is separated into 30 nerves. These are either cervical nerves, thoracic nerves, lumbar nerves or sacral nerves, each of which control different functions in the body.

The nerves: what controls what in the body

Use our interactive diagram to learn what different parts of the spinal cord control and what damage to each area can cause.


Types of spinal cord injury

Injury to the cervical nerves are often the most severe. This is because any damage to these nerves results in damage to all others underneath.

This normally results in tetraplegia (or quadriplegia), which is the complete or partial paralysis from the neck downwards.

Matt Hampson suffered a spinal cord injury during a scrum whilst playing rugby for England. Photo: Daily Express.

People with tetraplegia experience:

  • Difficulty or inability to breathe on their own
  • Impaired ability or inability to speak
  • Loss of feeling below the level of injury
  • Paralysis in legs, torso and arms
  • Inability to control bladder or bowel functions

Damage to the the thoracic nerves usually results in the loss of function in the lower half of the body.

This is known as paraplegia, and affects both legs, sometimes the body but not the arms.

Paraplegic Peter Norfolk won gold in wheelchair tennis in Beijing and Athens. Photo: peternorfolk.com

This is what most wheelchair athletes suffer from.

People who suffer from paraplegia still lead very independent lives. They remain able to:

  • Breathe normally with limited endurance
  • Use a manual wheelchair
  • Feed themselves
  • Transfer themselves in and out of their wheelchairs without assistance
  • Drive modified cars


Rehabilitation programmes vary depending on the type and severity of  the spinal cord injury.

Those with cervical damage (tetraplegia) often receive:

  • Surgery to reduce pressure on the spinal cord.
  • Steroid injections to reduce any discomfort and inflammation from the injury.
  • Physical therapy to aid in regaining function of the affected parts of the body and to maintain the function in areas which were not affected by the injury.
  • Stem cell injections: a new tool to aid in the recovery of the spinal cord. The aim is to regrow the damaged cells in the spinal cord in an attempt to regain movement.
Tetraplegia rehabilitation. Photo: Tim R
Tetraplegia rehabilitation. Photo: Tim R

Those who damage their thoracic nerves and thus suffer paraplegia could receive:

  • Surgery to remove any bone fragments which are still around the cord to prevent any further damage.
  • Surgery to decompress the spinal cord, and also to fuse together any segments surrounding the injury.
  • Stem cells
Paraplegia rehabilitation includes physiotherapy. Photo: paraplegie.ch
Paraplegia rehabilitation includes physiotherapy. Photo: paraplegie.ch

Physical therapy is also used to help sufferers build upper body strength, and use walking aids.

Rehab will also include guidance on how to dress and bathe themselves.

In both tetraplegic and paraplegic cases psychiatrists are made available to help the patient overcome any mental damage caused by the injury.

Further questions?

If you, or someone you know, needs help recovering from a spinal injury, or if you have any other questions, please contact Aspire:

Tel: 020 8420 5759
Email: info@aspire.org.uk




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