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What is a Severed Spinal Cord?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated Feb 26, 2024
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A severed spinal cord is a break in the network of nerve cells in the spine. The spinal cord is a spongy white substance encased inside the hollow vertebrae and discs of the spine. This cord can be severed due to a traumatic injury. If the spinal cord is severed, it can cause paralysis below the point of the damage, which can be total or partial, depending on the level of injury and degree of impairment of the cord.

The spinal cord is divided into segments which control different parts of the body. The upper segments regulate movement and sensation in the upper body, while the lower part sends signals the lower body. A cord that is completely cut in one area causes total paralysis in the part of the body linked to that segment. If the spinal cord is partially severed, some feeling and movement may be possible. Injury to the specific section of the spinal cord that controls breathing can cause death.

Car accidents account for about half of all severed spinal cords. Sporting mishaps, falls, and some diseases can also cause permanent damage to the spinal cord. More than 75% of all victims who suffer from a severed spinal cord are young, male adults. The accidents are often linked to risky behavior, such as diving into shallow water, accidents while not wearing a seat belt, and drinking while driving. Emergency workers who respond to these accidents routinely strap patients to a backboard to prevent further damage whenever a spinal cord injury is suspected.

People with a severed spinal cord face a number of complications linked to their inability to move. Deep vein thrombosis can occur from the lack of normal blood flow to parts of the body. Blood pools in the veins and can cause clots, pressure sores, joint problems, and urinary trouble. Men who are paralyzed below the waist are usually unable to perform sexually, but a woman may still be able to become pregnant and deliver a healthy child under close medical supervision.

Cells in the spinal cord do not regenerate like the cells in the skin, blood, muscle, and some other organs do. When a spinal cord is totally severed, the damage is usually permanent. Patients require long-term rehabilitation to learn how to deal with the condition and gain as much function as possible. Clinical trials began in 2010 using embryonic stem cells to treat patients with a severed spinal cord after years of studies on animals.

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Discussion Comments
By anon991653 — On Jul 06, 2015

My 82 year old father was sitting in a chair with rollers and went to put his feet up on his desk and the chair rolled out from under him. He hit the floor and was instantly paralyzed. We found out after his CT scan and MRI that he had severed his spinal cord at the C4-C5 vertebra. He was breathing on his own, but only from his diaphragm. He didn't have full use of his lungs. He chose not to be put on a ventilator and after five days, he passed away.

We were told that at his age even if he had been put on a ventilator it would not have been long before pneumonia would have set in. We spent five days with him, talking, laughing and crying, and I cherish every minute of it now.

By anon320139 — On Feb 16, 2013

I have mylopathy in D10-11 and L4-5 due to a disc bulging. I am suffering from right leg pain and backache. Can anyone advise me about treatment? --J P Yogi

By lovealot — On Aug 11, 2011

@BabaB - You asked a question about the symptoms of a severed spinal cord. I am taking nursing training and know something about spinal cord injuries.

The most common symptom of a severed spinal cord is paralysis. The paralysis usually affects the body below the spot where it was severed. If the injury happens in the neck, there is paralysis of the whole body.

Another symptom is muscle spasms. Sometimes physical therapy, medication or electrical stimulation can help this symptom.

In addition, the patient may experience difficulty breathing and clearing the lungs.

There is often a loss of sensation - there is no feeling when they are touched, and they can feel neither hot or cold.

By BabaB — On Aug 11, 2011

I feel very badly for those who sustain injuries to their spinal cord. Severing the spinal cord leads to varying amounts of paralysis and disability.

Unfortunately, it's true that most spinal chord injuries happen when a young male is involved in risky behavior. If driving while drinking could be eliminated, that would result in less spinal cord injuries.

Since the spinal cord is pretty well protected in our body, the impact in accidents must be very hard to sever the cord.

When patrolmen come to the aid of an accident victim, what symptoms do they notice that clues them in that the person has had a spinal cord injury so that they can be treated very carefully?

By blackDagger — On Aug 10, 2011

I had a close family member who actually sustained a spinal cord injury by simply standing up.

It was such a pitiful thing. This lady was a mother of six, who had always had the zest for life that you read about. And then she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.

It was particularly on her spine, although it had metastasized to several other places as well. Regardless, she flew across the country to the West coast for treatment.

While there, she was undergoing extensive radiation of her backbone. Little did the doctor’s realize that this was weakening her back to an actual breaking point.

One day, she stood up in her hotel suite to go somewhere with her husband when she simply collapsed and could no longer feel anything from the waist down.

Her spinal cord had broken in three different places, leaving her paralyzed for the next few short months of the rest of her life.

By oscar23 — On Aug 10, 2011

@BrickBack – I’ve also read about some promising procedures for people with spinal cord injuries dealing with stem cells.

Now, I know that a lot of folks have a whole hearted aversion to the use of stem cells, and I totally understand that. However, there is also a lot of confusion surrounding the subject.

Most people who are adverse to their use are thinking of fetal tissue type stem cells, and they are opposed to aborted fetuses being used for science.

I actually tend to lean this way myself, being pro-life.

However, there is more than one kind of stem cell, and many folks can’t get past the controversy to understand that little known fact. A person’s own stem cells can actually be used to help them.

Amazing advances are being made all over the world, and especially in places like India and China, that are revolving around these perfectly fitted stem cells to help people with spinal cord injuries.

Although that is one of the major scopes of the advancements, there are many, many more treatments being developed all of the time as well.

By shell4life — On Aug 09, 2011

I was in the car with my cousin when we had the wreck that severed his spinal cord. We had been having so much fun that night, and I’m glad that his last night as a fully functioning person was a good one.

His upper spine was severed, so he became paralyzed from the lower part of his neck down, including his arms and legs. However, he still had enough control of his diaphragm to breathe on his own. His doctor said that if the injury had been any higher, he probably would have had to be on a ventilator.

By Perdido — On Aug 08, 2011

My nephew was one of those risky males whose behavior led to paralysis. He went on a church trip to South Africa, where there were plenty of seaside cliffs for diving.

The youth director did not know that he and several other boys had climbed up a cliff to jump into the ocean below. It was so high that the thrill was intoxicating, but they did not know that the water below was not very deep.

My nephew dove and partially severed his spinal cord. Since the cut was under the base of the rib cage, he lost sensation in his legs and the part of his torso beneath the injury. He became a paraplegic.

By sunshine31 — On Aug 08, 2011

@BrickBack - There are actually a lot of promising treatments that help with the regeneration of the nerve cells of the spinal cord.

They say that the use of neurotransmitters help control and aid the development of neurons which allows the cells from the nerves to redevelop. Other medicines like glatiramer acetate also engage the immune system and create cells that shield the spinal cord which leads to regeneration of the spinal cord cells.

There are also electrical treatments and treadmill and harness therapies that can help those improve the limited mobility that they have.

I think that there are a lot of potential therapies and treatment options that researchers are trying to develop to treat spinal cord injuries, but this area of the body takes a while to study because it is more complicated than other parts of the body.

By BrickBack — On Aug 08, 2011

Yeesh, talk about a scary condition! I think the psychological impact of hearing that you severed your spinal cord would be so damaging even in itself, regardless of the actual physical damage. What are some of the treatments for this kind of condition, does anybody know?

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