Spinal injury definitions

The language associated with spinal injury can be complicated and difficult to understand. We have identified some of the key terms in use every day in relation to spinal injuries.


Anterior cord syndrome

Anterior cord syndrome is an incomplete lesion when only the front of the spinal cord is damaged, almost always at the cervical level.


Arachnoiditis describes the thickening and scarring of the membranes which surround and protect the nerve roots. Cysts or adhesions develop, causing pressure on the cord, back pain and/or additional loss of nerve function. Arachnoiditis can be caused by diseases such as meningitis and tuberculosis of the spine. More commonly it develops in people with spinal cord injury, or who have had operations on the spine.


Autonomic is a 'vegetative' nervous system which is separate from but linked to that of the spinal cord. It controls the bladder and bowels, blood circulation and sweating.

Autonomic dysreflexia

Autonomic dysreflexia describes a sudden increase in blood pressure to which tetraplegics are especially prone because their autonomic nervous system is disrupted. Commonly caused by an over-full or infected bladder or bowel, it produces sweating and a blinding headache. It is a medical emergency, and if untreated can cause death.


Brown-Sequard syndrome

Brown-Sequard syndrome occurs when one side of the spinal cord is damaged, common when injury is caused by a stab wound. On the injured side of the body there are decreased reflexes, while on the opposite side there is a loss of sense of pain and temperature.


Cauda equina

Cauda equina or the "horse's tail" is a three inch bundle of fine nerves leaving the lower end of the spinal cord, below the level of the second lumbar vertebra.

Central cord syndrome

Central cord syndrome is an incomplete lesion usually at the cervical level. Feeling is less affected than movement, but bladder and sexual function are often only slightly affected and some people will be able to walk to some extent.


Cervical describes the neck area. The cervical section of the spinal cord contains 8 nerve roots which control neck movement, breathing and the shoulders, arms and wrists.

Cerebro-spinal fluid

Cerebro-spinal fluid or CSF is a colourless liquid within the skull and the spinal canal which nourishes the brain and spinal cord and acts as a water cushion.

Cystic myelopathy

A cystic myelopathy is a spinal cyst. See syringomyelia.



Discs are pads of gristle which separate the spinal vertebrae and surround and cushion the spinal cord.


Dysesthesias are painful sensations experienced below the level of lesion following spinal cord injury. Often described as burning, numbness, pins and needles or tingling.



A lesion is a cut, sore or injury. Often used to describe the site of injury to the spinal cord.


Lodosis describes a backwards curvature of the spine.


The Lumbar is the lower back area. The lumbar section of the spinal cord contains 5 nerve roots which control the muscles of the legs.



Meninges are the silky linings of the skull and spinal cord which protect the brain and spinal cord.


Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, the linings of the skull and spinal canal. Usually caused by a virus, and sometimes fatal, especially in children. Meningitis serosa circumscripta or arachnoiditis is a rare condition that affects some people with spinal cord injury.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a non-invasive technique of body scanning which produces very good images without side effects. Used to examine the spinal cord i.e. to detect syringomyelia.


A myelogram is an x-ray of the spine after injection of an x-ray opaque dye into the spinal column, to examine the spinal cord i.e. to detect syringomyelia.


A myelopathy (or spinal cord injury) is a disturbance of the spinal cord that results in loss of sensation and mobility.



Paraplegia is the paralysis caused by injury or damage to the spinal cord below the neck.



Quadriplegia - see tetraplegia .

Paraplegia is the paralysis caused by injury or damage to the spinal cord below the neck.



Sacral is used to describe the area at the base of the spine, where the five sacral vertebrae are fused together. The five sacral nerve roots control the bladder and bowel.

Sacral Anterior Root Stimulator (SARS)

A Sacral Anterior Root Stimulator (SARS) is a surgical implant which restores bladder control in some paraplegics.


A scoliosis is a lateral curvature of the spine.

Sub-Perception Electrical Stimulation (SPES)

Sub-Perception Electrical Stimulation (SPES) is a technique which applies minute electrical currents to the body to help control pain.

Spina bifida

Spina bifida is an abnormal split or opening in the spinal column, normally caused by a genetic defect and present from a nearly stage of the development of the foetus in the womb.


Syringomyelia is a condition affecting some able-bodied as well as some people with spinal cord injury. A cavity in the spinal cord fills with cerebrospinal fluid. The resulting pressure further enlarges the cavity and damages the nerve tissues in the cord. In SCI people this tends to occur above the level of the original injury, causing pressure on nerve roots and pain or further loss of sensation in upper limbs.


A syrinx is a cavity in the spinal cord. See syringomyelia .



Tetraplegia is the paralysis caused by injury or damage to the upper or cervical section of the spinal cord.


Thoracic describes the chest area. The thoracic section of the spinal cord contains 12 nerve roots which control the muscles of the ribs, chest and abdomen.


Upper motor neurons

Upper motor neurons are spinal nerves coming off the spinal cord, they carry messages back and forth from the brain to the spinal nerves along the spinal cord. The sensory and motor parts of the spinal cord are located within the upper motor neurons and carry messages to the brain about sensation and to initiate actions such as muscle movement.


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