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Spinal Cord Injuries

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Symptoms of Spinal Cord Injuries

Symptoms will vary, depending on the location and severity of the damage to the spinal cord, and the outcomes vary greatly. The main symptom is often paralysis of varying degree.

Cervical spine (neck) injuries usually result in full or partial tetraplegia (quadriplegia), which may or may not be reparable. Symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty or loss of breathing
  • Loss of function of shoulders, arms, hands and wrists
  • Inability to control body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure and sweating

Patients usually are unable to live independently or function on their own.

Injuries to the thoracic or mid-spinal cord area usually result in paraparesis (parapalegia), meaning the mid-trunk is affected, but not breathing or upper body. Symptoms include:

  • Inability to control trunk and abdominal muscles

The lumbrosacral region is the lower part of the spinal cord, and when it is injured, the lower part of the body is affected. Symptoms include:

  • Bowel and bladder dysfunction
  • Sexual dysfunction

Incomplete spinal cord injuries can cause other syndromes such as cauda equina syndrome.

Anyone who has suffered a trauma to the back or head should seek medical attention immediately. It is important not to move a person that has experienced spinal trauma, because further movement can cause additional damage to the spine. Instead, keep the person still by placing rolled up towels around the head and body, and call 911.

It is imperative that an injured person be seen at a major medical center with neurosurgeons experienced in treating these serious injuries. It’s also a good idea to ask the ambulance crew to be sure the injured person is taken to a Level-1 trauma center. The spine team at the Weill Cornell Brain and Spine Center — expert spine surgeons along with their team of physicians, nurses, physical therapists, and pain management specialists — provide comprehensive, integrated care for patients with spinal cord injuries and many other conditions of the spine. Patients receive a complete continuum of care, from diagnosis to treatment and recovery.

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Reviewed by Dr. Roger Härtl
Last reviewed/last updated: December 2020