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According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, as many as 450,000 people in the United States are living with a spinal cord injury (SCI). Other organizations conservatively estimate this figure to be about 250,000.
Every year, an estimated 17,000 new SCIs occur in the U.S. Most of these are caused by trauma to the vertebral column, thereby affecting the spinal cord’s ability to send and receive messages from the brain to the body’s systems that control sensory, motor and autonomic function below the level of injury.
Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of SCI in the U. S. in younger individuals, while falls are the leading cause for SCI for people over 65. Acts of violence and sports/recreation activities are other common causes for these injuries.
Just over half of all SCI occurs in persons age 16-30, most of whom are male (80%). Males also represent nearly all (90%) of sports-related SCIs.
A complete SCI produces total loss of all motor and sensory function below the level of injury. Nearly 50% of all SCIs are complete. Both sides of the body are equally affected. Even with a complete SCI, the spinal cord is rarely cut or transected. More commonly, loss of function is caused by a contusion or bruise to the spinal cord or by compromise of blood flow to the injured part of the spinal cord.
In an incomplete SCI, some function remains below the primary level of the injury. A person with an incomplete injury may be able to move one arm or leg more than the other or may have more functioning on one side of the body than the other.
SCIs are graded according to the American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) grading scale, which describes the severity of the injury. The scale is graded with letters:
- ASIA A: injury is complete spinal cord injury with no sensory or motor function preserved.
- ASIA B: a sensory incomplete injury with complete motor function loss.
- ASIA C: a motor incomplete injury, where there is some movement, but less than half the muscle groups are anti-gravity (can lift up against the force of gravity with a full range of motion).
- ASIA D: a motor incomplete injury with more than half of the muscle groups are anti-gravity.
- ASIA E: normal.