The type of disability which occurs after the spinal cord is injured depends on the severity of injury and the location of the injured segment of the spinal cord. In cases of a severe trauma to the spinal cord, all functions below the level of injury will be lost.
After spinal cord injury, the nerve fibres which send motor signals from the brain to the torso and the limbs are impaired and this causes paralysis of the muscles. Then there is also the destruction of sensory nerve fibres that go from the skin up to the brain which leads to loss of sensations such as touch, pain and the ability to distinguish between hot and cold.
Less well-known is that spinal cord injury can also severely limit bladder and bowel control, sexual performance and blood pressure.
People with injuries above C4 (4th cervical vertebra) may require a ventilator in order to breathe. In this case both arms and legs are completely paralyzed. In general all Injuries above T1 (1st thoracic vertebra) affect at least in part arm functions. This is called “tetraplegia”.
People with an injury between T2 and T12 (2nd and 12th thoracic vertebra) can use their arms and hands, but may have a poor trunk control. In this case “only” the legs are paralyzed, this is called “paraplegia”.
People with injuries at lumbar (level L1-L5) experience reduced control of their legs. The sacral nerves, S1 to S5, are responsible for bowel, bladder and sexual function as well as controlling the foot musculature.
Because of the fact that the spinal cord below the injury site still has a normal circuitry, which become “uncontrolled” as it is disconnected from the brain, other serious consequences like exaggerated reflexes and spasticity can arise. Spinal cord injuries can lead to many secondary complications, including pressure sores, increased susceptibility to infections (respiratory and urinary system) and autonomic dysreflexia. Autonomic dysreflexia leads to a potentially life-threatening increase in blood pressure or even cardiac arrest, sweating, and other autonomic reflexes in reaction to bowel impaction or some other stimuli.
Life expectancy for people with spinal cord injury is significantly reduced, especially for tetraplegics, as indicated by the data updated annually by the University of Alabama:
In addition, these studies also highlight the high social costs for the entire life of a person with spinal cord injury ranging from 1 to 5 million dollars to which must be added the indirect costs such as lost production income etc. In Europe, there is no certain data, but it is reasonable to assume that the costs are even higher.
In Italy there are over 80.000 people with chronic spinal cord injuries and there are approximately 2.000 new cases every year.
To date, no cure exists for chronic spinal cord injury, but numerous scientific studies have proven that the regeneration of the spinal cord is possible and so it is reasonable to think that it is no longer a question of if, but is just a question of when, there will be a cure. For this reason we believe it is imperative to take immediate action to make a cure happen as soon as possible.