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The Spinal Cord: Anatomy, Function, and Common Injuries

Shot of a doctor showing her patient his scan on a digital tablet

The spinal cord is a long section of nerve tissue that begins at the brain’s base. It extends down through the spinal canal and ends between the first and second lumbar (low back) vertebrae. From there, it separates into several long, thin fibers called the cauda equina, which reach down to the coccyx (tailbone), then separate further and spread to the lower limbs. The length of the spinal cord is 17 inches in women and 18 inches in men. The thickness of the cord is roughly equal to the human thumb.

Together, the brain and spinal cord form the central nervous system. The brain serves as the body’s supercomputer, taking in sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch data from the outside environment. The brain then sends instructions to the spinal cord, which transmits these messages to all the muscles in the body that are responsible for movement. The spinal cord also communicates with the internal organs to help regulate normal function.

There are two categories of spinal cord injuries: incomplete or complete. Incomplete spinal cord injuries result in a partial detachment that allows some function to remain. The amount of function depends on the area of the injury. Some of the most common incomplete spinal cord injuries are:

  • Anterior cord syndrome
  • Brown – Sequard syndrome
  • Central cord syndrome

A complete spinal cord injury causes complete separation, with all function ceasing. In both cases, physical therapy and other treatment may help the individual regain function to a certain extent. The types of complete spinal cord injuries that occur most often include:

  • Tetraplegia
  • Paraplegia
  • Triplegia

A physician diagnoses a spinal cord injury by using clinical evaluation criteria such as a physical assessment using the ASIA scale, along with a CT, MRI, x-ray, or myelogram.

When an individual has sustained a spinal cord injury, they should stay immobile and have someone call 911.

If you have a spinal cord injury and would like to learn about our treatment choices from one of our specialists, please contact our San Antonio, Seguin or New Braunfels offices.