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SCI 101

Effects of an SCI

Your Spine

Spinal cord Impairment

You have had an accident or illness which has resulted in a spinal cord impairment (SCI). Spinal cord impairments are different from person to person. You may experience only a few of the effects or the full range. This section will help with the basics, enable you to ask questions, and be better informed about your recovery. While you are in the Spinal Unit (Burwood or Auckland) you will receive a copy of the Back on Track handbook – this book is a good introduction to an SCI and what to expect.

What causes a spinal cord impairment?

The spinal cord contains the nerves that carry messages between your brain and the rest of the body. The cord passes through your neck and back. Damage to your spinal cord can occur when its blood and oxygen supply is disrupted and/or pressure is applied to it.

Frequent causes of damage are traumatic accidents such as motor vehicle incidents, falls, violent attacks:(e.g gun shot or stabbing) and sports activities. There are also many diseases that can cause spinal cord impairment such as transverse myelitis, multiple sclerosis, cervical myelopathy, infections, tumours, disturbance to the blood supply and motor neurone disease.

What are the symptoms of a spinal cord injury?

The symptoms experienced are different for everyone and depend on the level at which the spinal cord is damaged. They can include:

  • loss of feeling or numbness
  • loss of mobility (motor function)
  • loss of bowel or bladder control
  • loss of temperature control
  • severe pain in your neck, head or back
  • paralysis or difficulty with balance or walking
  • stinging sensations
  • oddly positioned or twisted neck or back
  • difficulty breathing near your neck.

How are spinal cord injuries diagnosed?

A physical examination is often the first test that is performed. The doctor may assess your muscle tone, strength, reflexes and your ability to sense touch and pin-prick. Other common tests doctors may use to assist diagnosis include: X-Ray, CT scan and MRI.

Spinal injuries are usually diagnosed as:

Complete – When your spinal cord is completely damaged and there is total loss of feeling and the ability to control movement below the injury.

Incomplete – When there is some movement and/or sensation below the injury. Types of incomplete spinal cord injury include conditions such as brown sequard syndrome, central cord syndrome, posterior cord syndrome and anterior cord syndrome.

When a spinal injury causes paralysis, paraplegia refers to the loss of function in 2 limbs, usually your legs. Quadriplegia and tetraplegia refer to functional loss of your arms and legs and usually includes your trunk (main body area).

In hospital, steps will be taken to stabilise the spine. This can include traction or braces. Sometimes surgery is needed, and any other injuries will also need to be treated.


This involves a combination of physical therapy and occupational therapy tailored to each person's needs. This phase also usually includes counselling for both the person and their loved ones to help with the adjustment and recovery process.

For more information visit:

Health Navigator - spinal injuries