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Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Day 2024: Empowering Lives, Raising Voices

Updated: May 17

Written by Allison Whitehorn

Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Day

A spinal cord injury is a life changing event. Damage to any part of the spinal cord, including damage to the nerves at the end of the spinal cord, is known as the cauda equina. With today being Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Day, below serves to hopefully provide some knowledge and stories of what this can mean to those living with a spinal cord injusy, like Cauda Equina Syndrome.

The spinal cord sends and receives signals between the brain and the rest of the body. A spinal cord injury often causes permanent changes in strength, feeling and other body functions below the site of the injury.

People who have a spinal cord injury also experience mental, emotional and social side effects. So it’s important to raise awareness and understanding for people around us to know of the challenges faced on a daily basis.

Many people with spinal cord injuries who receive support go on to lead productive, more independent lives. Such as groups like CESCI. S.I.A and The Backup Trust. To name just a few.

Your Brain and Central Nervous System

Cartoon image of a brain

The central nervous system includes the brain and spinal cord. The spinal cord is made of soft tissue and is surrounded by bones called vertebrae. It extends down from the base of the brain and contains nerve cells and groups of nerves. Which go to different parts of your body.

The lower end of your spinal cord stops a little above your waist in the region called the conus medullaris. Below this region is a group of nerve roots called the cauda equina.

Nerves in your spinal cord carry messages between your brain and the rest of your body. Where nerves send signals from your brain to control muscle movement, Sensory nerves carry signals from body parts to your brain relating to heat, cold, pressure, pain, and the position of your arms and legs. When damage occurs to the nerve fibres through an injured area, this can impair part or all the muscles and nerves below the sight of injury.

An injury to the cauda equina will affect the legs, bowel, bladder and sexual function.

Symptoms of a Spinal Cord Injury

The ability to control your arms or legs after a spinal cord injury depends on two factors.

  1. Where the injury occurred on the spinal cord.

  2. How significant the injury.

It is known as a neurological injury., as it is nerve damage. The “completeness" of the injury refers to how much feeling, known as sensation, is lost.

Completeness is classified as:

  • Complete. If all feeling and all ability to control movement are lost below the spinal cord injury, the injury is called complete.

  • Incomplete. If some feeling and control of movement remain below the affected area, the injury is called incomplete. There are varying degrees of incomplete injury. Majority of cauda equina are known as incomplete. Loss of feeling and control of movement is known as paralysis. Paralysis from a spinal cord injury can be referred to as:

  • Tetraplegia / Quadriplegia. This means that your arms, hands, trunk, legs and pelvic organs are all affected by your spinal cord injury.

  • Paraplegia. This paralysis affects all or part of the trunk, legs and pelvic organs but not the arms. (Cauda equina is in this catagory)

Spinal cord injuries can cause the following symptoms:

  • Loss of movement.

  • Loss of or a change in sensation. This includes a change in the ability to feel heat, cold and touch.

  • Loss of bowel or bladder control.

  • Exaggerated reflex activities or spasms.

  • Changes in sexual function, sexual sensitivity and fertility.

  • Pain or an intense stinging sensation caused by damage to the nerves in the spinal cord.

  • Trouble breathing, coughing or clearing secretions from the lungs. ( Only higher injuries than lumbar)

Effects / Complications

A spinal cord injury can lead to many complications.

  • Bladder and bowel control. The bladder continues to store urine from the kidneys after a spinal cord injury. But the injury may interfere with the brain receiving the messages it needs to control the bladder to say when it needs emptying etc. The bowel too will not function as before.

  • Pressure injuries. Below the neurological level of your injury, you might have lost some or all skin sensations. Therefore, your skin can't send a message to your brain when it's injured by certain things such as prolonged pressure.This can increase the risk of getting pressure sores.

  • Circulation. People with a spinal cord injury may have low blood pressure when they rise. They also may have swelling in the arms and legs. This can increase the risk of DVT’s. Another issue with circulatory control is a potentially life-threatening rise in blood pressure, known as autonomic dysreflexia. (T6 injury or above)

  • Respiratory system. If the injury affects the stomach and chest muscles, it may be hard to breathe and cough. ( not cauda equina). The neurological level of injury determines what kind of breathing problems you may have. If the injury affects your neck and chest, you might have an increased risk of pneumonia or other lung conditions. Medicines and therapy can be helpful for treatment and prevention.

  • Bone density. A spinal cord injury increases the risk of osteoporosis and fractures below the level of injury.

  • Muscle tone. Some people with spinal cord injuries have a tightening or motion in the muscles, known as spasticity. Other people may have soft and limp muscles lacking muscle tone, known as flaccidity.

  • Fitness and wellness. Weight loss and muscle thinning are common soon after a spinal cord injury. Because limited mobility can lead to a more sedentary lifestyle, there is a risk of weight gain, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

  • Sexual health.

  • Pain. Such as muscle or joint pain, from overuse of particular muscle groups. Nerve pain can occur after a spinal cord injury, especially in someone with an incomplete injury, like cauda equina.

  • Depression / Mental health. Pain and the changes a spinal cord injury brings can cause depression in majority of people. Plus adaptions to a new way of living.

Raising awareness for this life changing condition is very important. To enable the person who is living with a spinal cord injury to have more understanding and accessibility in their day to day lives.

Below is a video, showcasing the stories from 4 of our members, living with Cauda Equina Syndrome, a Spinal Cord Injury.

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