Spinal Cord Injury

The spinal cord is a long bundle of nerve fibers and nerve cells that extend from the base of the skull to below the waist. It is protected by the bones of your spine. The spinal cord nerves carry messages between the brain and the rest of the body. For that reason, injuries to the spinal cord are very serious. They may cause loss of feeling below the injured area (numbness) or loss of the ability to move (paralysis). Emergency treatment may help prevent permanent damage or may reduce the severity of the damage.


Don't move a person with a spinal injury unless you must do so to save his or her life. Call 911 and wait for help.

Back view of person showing spinal cord.

What causes spinal cord injuries?

Car accidents, falls, sports injuries, and gunshot wounds cause most spinal cord damage. Electrical shock can also damage the spinal cord. Spinal cord injuries can happen to anyone, but men in their 30s and 40s are most often affected.

When to go to the emergency room (ER)

A spinal cord injury is an extreme medical emergency. For anyone with a possible injury to the back or neck, call 911 or emergency services right away. Don't try to move the person. Doing so can cause further injury.

When the paramedics arrive

The emergency technicians will place the injured person on a hard board and fit a hard neck brace on his or her neck. They will ask basic questions, take a history, and do a physical exam. They might need to put an IV (intravenous catheter) in his or her arm or hand to give medicines or fluids. It is important to provide a current list of the medicines the injured person is taking.

What to expect in the ER

The healthcare providers and nurses caring for your loved one will act quickly. You can help by answering questions about the injury. Meanwhile, your loved one will be examined and his or her breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure will be checked. Oxygen may be given through a facemask. An endotracheal tube may be placed in the throat to aid breathing. To help determine the extent of the injury, one or more tests may be done:

  • Spinal X-rays can help reveal fracture or damage to the bones of the spine.

  • CT scans are detailed cross sectional X-rays showing location and extent of the damage.

  • MRI uses strong magnets and radio waves to provide clear computer images of the spine that reveal herniated disks and other problems.

  • Ultrasound or direct exam can find bladder distention. This is caused by urine retention because of an injured spinal cord. If the healthcare provider finds this condition, he or she will insert a urinary catheter to empty the bladder.