About Spinal Cord Injury and Disease

Life with a spinal cord injury or disease is demanding enough without secondary symptoms such as spasticity, which tightens muscles and can make daily activities more challenging.


Spinal cord injury refers to damage of the spinal cord resulting from a blunt or penetrating trauma.


Spinal cord injury is usually the result of an accident (for example, motor vehicle accident, fall, sports injury) or acts of violence such as gunshot wounds.1,2 It can also be caused by surgical complications or by disease (for example, polio, spina bifida, Friedreich's Ataxia).3

Risk Factors

Spinal cord injury can happen to anyone, but some people are at higher risk, including:1,2

  • Men – 80% of all spinal cord injury survivors are male
  • Young adults – more than half of spinal cord injuries happen to people age 16-30
  • Elderly people – usually from falls
  • People active in sports – high-risk athletics, in particular
  • People with bone or joint conditions – for example arthritis, osteoporosis


Even if the spinal cord has not been severed, a spinal cord injury can still result in loss of function. In fact, most people with impaired functioning due to spinal cord injury still have an intact spinal cord.3

Symptoms of possible spinal cord injury include:2

  • Extreme pain or pressure in the neck, head, or back
  • Tingling or loss of sensation in the hand, fingers, feet, or toes
  • Partial or complete loss of control over any part of the body
  • Urinary or bowel urgency, incontinence, or retention
  • Difficulty with balance and walking
  • Abnormal band-like sensations in the thorax (pain, pressure)
  • Impaired breathing
  • Unusual lumps on the head or spine

In addition, studies show that most spinal cord injury survivors have at least one secondary problem resulting from their injury, including:4

  • Spasticity
  • Obesity
  • Pain
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Pressure sores


Spinal cord injury is usually first diagnosed by loss of function below the injury site, along with other symptoms of spinal cord injury.

If your clinician suspects spinal cord injury, he or she will:

  • Perform a full physical evaluation
  • Take a detailed medical history
  • Perform specialised diagnostic tests

About Spasticity due to Spinal Cord Injury

Spasticity is caused by damage or injury to the part of the central nervous system (the brain or spinal cord) that controls voluntary movement. This damage disrupts important signals between the nervous system and muscles, creating an imbalance that increases muscle activity or spasms.

Spasticity can make movement, posture, and balance difficult. It may affect your ability to move one or more of your limbs, or to move one side of your body. Sometimes spasticity is so severe that it gets in the way of daily activities, sleep patterns, and caregiving. In certain situations, this loss of control can be dangerous for the individual.


  1. The Mayo Clinic. Spinal Cord Injury. Available at: www.mayoclinic.com. Accessed 07/18/08.
  2. American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Spinal Cord Injury. Available at: www.neurosurgerytoday.org. Accessed 04/05/08.
  3. National Spinal Cord Injury Association. Spinal Cord 101. Available at: www.spinalinjury.net. Accessed 04/05/08.
  4. Anson C, Shepherd C. Incidence of secondary complications in spinal cord injury. Int J Rehabil Research 1996;19:55-66.

Information on this site should not be used as a substitute for talking with your doctor. Always talk with your doctor about diagnosis and treatment information.

Last updated: 27 Sep 2010

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