Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Day
22 May 2021

Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Day: The Anatomy of SCI

Friday May 21st is Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Day, an annual event organised by charities Aspire and the Spinal Injuries Association. It’s all about raising awareness and understanding of the impact of spinal cord injury.

Many of our clients at Ethos have come to us as a result of spinal cord injury (SCI) so we are keen to do our bit to help highlight the effect of spinal cord injury on both our clients and their families. 

Over the years we’ve found that our clients, through their treatment and rehabilitation, have extensive knowledge of the spinal cord and how their injury has affected their mobility. But for family and friends it can be a confusing muddle of terminology and acronyms. 

Our chief executive Fae Dromgool has put forward a straightforward guide to help everyone involved understand the spinal cord and spinal cord injury.

What is the spinal cord?

      Spine image


The spinal cord is that part of your central nervous system that transmits messages between your brain and your body. The spinal cord has two major nerve pathways that help your brain control your body:

Motor Nerve (descending) Pathway

This carries information from the brain downwards to initiate movement and control body functions. Any damage to the motor nerve pathways within the spinal cord will result in the brain not being able to initiate movement and control within the body below the damaged site. This is known as paralysis.

Sensory Nerve (ascending) Pathway

This carries sensory information from the body upwards to the brain such as touch, skin temperature and pain. If the sensory nerve pathways are also damaged then the brain cannot feel the body below the damaged area.

The spinal cord resembles a cable which is about the thickness of your little finger and is approximately 52 cm long. It begins at the base of the brain and runs down the length of the back ending behind the 1st lumbar vertebra. 

Like the brain, the spinal cord is a very delicate structure and can be easily damaged by trauma. To protect them from the risks of everyday life, the brain is protected by the skull and the spinal cord by the spinal column.

For everyday activities we need our spine to be very flexible, allowing twisting and bending to occur. This is possible, because the spinal column is made up of 33 individual bones called vertebrae and 31 pairs of nerves. 

Vertebrae are grouped into five different areas


Each vertebra is separated by disc or cartilage. These discs act as shock absorbers and prevent the vertebra from grinding together.

The higher the spinal injury the more muscles become paralysed.

What is a spinal cord injury?

This is where the spinal cord is damaged following major trauma to the spinal cord from a variety of causes. In the majority of cases the cord is crushed destroying nerve cells and nerve tracts or pathways at that specific level within the cord.

The level of injury is the exact point in the spinal cord at which damage has occurred. The levels are determined by counting the nerves from the top of the neck downwards, and these nerves are grouped into the four different areas of the spine, cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacral.

Tetraplegia or (and) Quadriplegia:

If your spinal cord has been damaged in your cervical region (neck), all four limbs are affected.


If your spinal cord has been damaged below the level of T1, both your legs are paralysed but this does not affect the hands and arms.

Complete and incomplete SCI

Spinal cord injuries are classified as either complete or incomplete.

A ‘complete’ spinal cord injury means there is complete loss of movement and feeling below the level of the injury. There are no messages getting past the area of damage. It usually takes a significant trauma to the spinal column, such as a complete dislocation, or column fracture to the vertebrae to cause a complete injury. This causes the spinal cord to be crushed and completely compromised.

An ‘incomplete’ spinal cord injury means there is either some voluntary contraction of the anal ring, and or some deep anal sensation. This is often accompanied by some voluntary movement and sensation within the limbs below the spinal cord injury level. Only part of the spinal cord has been damaged and some messages are getting through. 

Further explanations and information are available from our colleagues at Aspire and Back Up

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