About Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord injury (SCI) disrupts signals normally transmitted between the brain and the body. A spinal cord injury can result in a loss of function, such as mobility, feeling and/or autonomic function (for example, bladder control), in the parts of the body below the level of the injury. Injury can occur at any level of the spinal cord and can be a complete injury with a total loss of sensation and muscle function, or incomplete, meaning some signals are able to travel past the injured area of the spinal cord. The spinal cord does not have to be completely severed for a loss of function to occur. In fact, in most people with spinal cord injury, much of the spinal cord is intact but damaged, resulting in loss of function.

Spinal Cord Injury Facts and Figures

In the U.S., there are approximately 18,000 new spinal cord injury cases each year 1

The estimated number of people living with a spinal cord injury in the U.S. is approximately 290,000 persons 2

The estimated lifetime cost of living with a spinal cord injury for a 25-year-old is $1.7 million to $5.1 million 3

Current Treatments and Unmet Needs

At this time, there is no way to reverse damage to the spinal cord once an injury occurs. Researchers are continually working on new treatments, including prostheses and medications that may promote nerve cell regeneration or improve the function of the nerves that remain after a spinal cord injury. However, no treatments are available to restore or repair the nerves that are damaged. 

Spinal cord injury treatment focuses on preventing further injury, rehabilitation, and empowering people with a spinal cord injury to return to an active and productive life.

How are Spinal Cord Injuries classified?

There are multiple way to classify a spinal cord injury.

Cause of the Injury

Spinal cord injury can be traumatic or non-traumatic and can be classified into three types based on cause: mechanical forces, toxic, and ischemic (from lack of blood flow). The damage can also be divided into primary and secondary. The primary injury is the cell death that occurs immediately in the original injury. The secondary injury includes the knock-on effects that occur because of the original injury and that cause further tissue damage. This secondary injury includes the ischemic cascade, inflammation, swelling, cell suicide and neurotransmitter imbalances that occur minutes to weeks following the injury.

Location of the Injury

The location of a spinal cord injury refers to the location along the spinal cord where the primary damage occurs. In general, the higher in the spinal column the injury occurs, the more dysfunction a person will experience.

Degree of Impairment

The International Standards for Neurological Classification of Spinal Cord Injury (ISNCSCI), published by the American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA), is widely used to document sensory and motor impairments following SCI. Muscle strength is scored on a scale of 0–5 and sensation is graded on a scale of 0–2 (0 is no sensation, 1 is altered or decreased sensation, and 2 is full sensation). Each side of the body is graded independently.

  1. Jain, N.B., Ayers, G.D., Peterson, E.N., Harris, M.B., Morse, L., O’Connor, K.C., and Garshick, E. (2015). Traumatic spinal cord injury in the United States, 1993-2012. JAMA 313, 2236–2243.
  2. Lasfargues, J.E., Custis, D., Morrone, F., Carswell, J., and Nguyen, T. (1995). A model for estimating spinal cord injury prevalence in the United States. Paraplegia 33, 62–68.
  3. National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, Facts and Figures at a Glance. Birmingham, AL: University of Alabama at Birmingham, 2020.