Rebuilding livesPromoting independencePreventing injuries

Your spine

Your spine is one of the most important parts of your body. It gives you structure and support. Without a spine, you would not be able to stand up and move freely. It is central to your skeletal system, it supports your head and encloses the spinal cord which runs down a canal in the spine.

Your spinal cord is a thick bundle of nerves, similar to a white fibre optic cable. It is usually about 43cm long and 2cm wide and is the communication link between your brain and other parts of your body.

The 31 pairs of spinal nerves in your spinal cord support a functional nervous system; a system you use whenever you think, see or breath. Messages about feeling or sensation are sent to the brain via the spinal cord, and the brain sends movement or functional messages to the body, also via the spinal cord. Damage to your spinal cord can have a profound impact on your life because once damaged it cannot be repaired.

This is why it is so vital to protect your spine and spinal cord. Read some real life stories about how spinal damage impacts lives.

Trauma and your spine

In most cases, a spinal cord injury is permanent and irreversible. It is a traumatic and devastating experience for the individual, their family and friends. It changes their lives forever.

It can happen to anyone at any time. One person sustains a spinal cord injury every four days in Queensland – about 90 people each year. There is no cure – prevention is the key.

What is spinal cord injury?

About the SpineSpinal cord injury occurs if pressure is applied to the spinal cord, and/or the blood and oxygen supply to the cord is cut off. This can occur when the vertebrae of the spine, enclosing the spinal cord, are displaced or injured.

If the spinal cord is damaged through crushing, bruising or severing, the messages to and from the brain cannot get through. Generally, the level and degree of injury to the spinal cord will determine the extent and areas of paralysis.

The diagram illustrates the various levels of the spine and the extent of paralysis which occurs to the body when the spinal cord is injured at a certain level.

Paraplegia and quadriplegia

The main difference between paraplegia and quadriplegia relates to the extent of paralysis and loss of feeling in the limbs.

  • Paraplegia occurs when there is an injury to the spinal cord below the neck (thoracic, lumbar or sacral regions). This causes paralysis and loss of feeling in the legs, trunk, bladder, bowel and sex organs. Arm and hand function generally remains normal.
  • Quadriplegia (sometimes referred to as tetraplegia) occurs when there is an injury to the spinal cord in the neck or cervical cord segments. This causes paralysis and loss of feeling in the legs, arms, trunk, bladder, bowel and sex organs. People who have high level quadriplegia may require mechanical ventilation to assist with breathing.

Spinal damage can also occur at the sacral or coccygeal levels. This affects the bowel, bladder and the leg area below the knee. However, many people who injure their spinal cord at this level will be able to walk with the assistance of special aids, such as a walking stick or foot splints.

The damage to the spinal cord may be complete or incomplete, depending on the degree of injury to the nerve fibres.

A ‘complete’ spinal cord injury means there is complete loss of movement and feeling below the level of the injury. Damage has occurred to the whole spinal cord and no messages are getting past the area of damage. An ‘incomplete’ spinal cord injury means there is some movement and feeling below the level of the injury. Only part of the spinal cord has been damaged and some messages are getting through.

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Facts and statistics

  • In Queensland, around 90 spinal cord injuries are sustained every year.
  • While traditionally most spinal cord injuries happen to people under the age of 40, there are a growing number of older people sustaining spinal injuries.
  • Men account for 80% of spinal cord injuries.
  • The main causes of traumatic spinal cord injuries are road trauma, falls and water related accidents.
  • In 2012-13, 52% of spinal cord injuries resulted in quadriplegia.

Source: Princess Alexandra Hospital’s Spinal Injuries Unit 2012

Economic cost

According to the Spinal Cord Injury Network, more than 10,000 people in Australia have a spinal cord injury.

  • The lifetime cost per incidence of paraplegia is estimated to be $5 million.
  • The lifetime cost per incidence of quadriplegia is estimated to be $9.5 million.
  • The total cost of spinal cord injury in Australia is estimated to be $2 billion annually.

Source: Access Economics 2009

  • If just 10% of carers were able to return to the workforce because their family member with a disability had appropriate personal support, there would be a $3 billion boost into the economy.
  • If just 2% of people with a disability could come off the pension to work because they had appropriate employment training, then there would be an injection of $2.5 billion into the economy.

Source: National Disability Services 2010

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