What Is an Acute Spinal Cord Injury?

The spinal cord contains the nerves that carry messages between the brain and the rest of the body. The spinal cord starts at the brain and extends down the neck and back inside the vertebrae.

An acute spinal cord injury (SCI) is a sudden traumatic injury that can result in a bruise, a partial injury or a complete injury to the spinal cord.

  • Partial spinal cord injury: Sometimes called an incomplete injury, the spinal cord is able to carry some messages to and from the brain to the rest of the body.
  • Complete spinal cord injury: The spinal cord is unable to carry messages to and from the brain to the rest of the body, resulting in a near-total loss of motor and sensory function.

Spinal cord injuries are classified according to the type of loss of motor and sensory function. The main classifications are:

  • Quadriplegia (tetraplegia): Involves loss of movement and sensation in all four limbs (arms and legs) and in the chest muscles, sometimes requiring a mechanical breathing machine
  • Paraplegia: Involves loss of movement and sensation in the lower half of the body


Possible complications of a spinal cord injury can include extreme changes in blood pressure (autonomic hyperreflexia) as well as:

  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Pulmonary infections
  • Skin breakdown
  • Contractures
  • Increased risk of injury to numb areas of your body
  • Increased risk of kidney damage
  • Increased risk of urinary tract infections
  • Loss of bladder and bowel control
  • Loss of sensation
  • Loss of sexual functioning
  • Muscle spasticity
  • Pain
  • Paralysis of breathing muscles
  • Paralysis (paraplegia, quadriplegia)
  • Shock


Safety practices during work and recreation can prevent many spinal cord injuries. Use proper protective equipment and use caution when participating in certain activities:

  • Diving into shallow water is a major cause of spinal cord trauma. Always check the depth of water before diving, and look for rocks or other possible obstructions.
  • Football and sledding injuries often involve sharp blows or abnormal twisting and bending of the back or neck and can result in spinal cord trauma. Use caution when sledding and inspect the area for obstacles. Use appropriate techniques and equipment when playing football or other contact sports.
  • Falls while climbing at work or during recreation can result in spinal cord injuries.
  • Defensive driving and wearing seat belts greatly reduces the risk of serious injury if there is an automobile accident.