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UT Southwestern is a recognized leader in providing state-of-the-art medical care for all types of spinal cord injuries. Our specially trained team offers personalized care with the goal of helping our patients lead productive, independent lives.

Leading-Edge Care for Spinal Cord Injuries

A spinal cord injury (SCI) refers to damage of the spinal cord – the long structure of nervous tissue within the spinal column that carries signals between the brain and body (muscles, organs, and all other tissues).

Most SCIs are caused by trauma to the vertebral column or spine, the flexible structure of bony vertebrae that protects the spinal cord.

SCIs may cause loss of function and sensation and, in some cases, complete paralysis below the location of the injury.

UT Southwestern has one of the top treatment centers in the country for spine and brain trauma. Our physical medicine and rehabilitation team conducts clinical research in SCI.

Additionally, UT Southwestern Medical Center is ranked among the nation’s top 20 hospitals for rehabilitative care by U.S. News & World Report.

Types and Causes of Spinal Cord Injury

SCIs fall into two categories:

  • Complete: Causes loss of motor and sensory control below the site of the injury, and patients present with paralysis
  • Incomplete: Causes some motor or sensory loss below the site of the injury, and patients experience varying symptoms depending on the level of incompleteness

An SCI can be traumatic (caused by a gunshot wound, car accident, or other event that causes a sudden blow to the spine) or nontraumatic (caused by a condition such as disk degeneration, an infection, or a tumor).

Most SCIs are trauma-based, with motor vehicle accidents and sports injuries being the most common sources. However, incomplete injuries due to falls have become increasingly common with longer lifespans in the U.S. The initial injury is often followed by swelling, bleeding, and fluid accumulation over days or weeks, which can lead to additional spinal damage.

People can reduce their risk of spinal cord trauma by:

  • Driving responsibly (don’t drink and drive; always wear a seatbelt)
  • Wearing a helmet while playing sports and riding a bike or motorcycle
  • Keeping a clutter-free home to reduce the risk of falls
  • Not diving into water less than 10 feet deep
  • Storing firearms in a locked safe

Spinal Cord Injury Symptoms

SCI symptoms depend on the severity of the injury. They may include:

  • Loss of function in the arms and legs
  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Loss of or changes in sensation or pain
  • Difficulty with walking or caring for oneself

Diagnosing Spinal Cord Injury

At UT Southwestern, our spine experts are highly experienced at assessing SCIs. During the diagnostic process, our specialists will typically:

  • Conduct a physical examination that includes testing sensory function, proprioception (sense of movement, location, and action of the body), and muscle strength
  • Order diagnostic tests, such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), of the spine as needed to visualize any abnormalities

Spinal Cord Injury Treatment

At UT Southwestern, we have the experience and expertise to treat both traumatic and nontraumatic SCIs of all levels.

Our multidisciplinary team of highly trained physicians and nurses works closely with physical, speech, and occupational therapists; rehabilitation psychologists; and social workers to provide the most advanced care.

The two main aspects of our SCI treatment are emergency care and rehabilitation. We provide excellent expedited medical care from acute hospital treatment to inpatient rehabilitation and transition to outpatient rehabilitation with a focus on community integration.

Emergency Care

Moderate to severe SCIs require emergency care to treat life-threatening problems, prevent further spinal cord damage, and monitor potential complications.

Acute spinal cord injury is an emergency, and our team of medical professionals works quickly to stabilize the patient, immobilize the head and spine, and minimize secondary damage.

Emergency care usually requires stabilization surgery, which reduces compression of the spinal cord by removing fragments of bone and realigning the spine.

Patients often require intensive care for management of spinal shock, which affects blood pressure and heart function.

Depending on the injury and presentation, removable braces are used to restrict movement of the spine and control its position at times. We also work to prevent secondary complications of hospitalizations such as blood clots, lung and bladder infections, pressure ulcers, and constipation.

Spine Injury Rehabilitation

UT Southwestern’s nationally recognized physical medicine and rehabilitation program aims to help each patient achieve the highest possible level of independence through increased strength, safe mobilization, and the ability to manage self-care with the goal of successful community integration for quality of life.

SCI rehabilitation often begins with a carefully coordinated transition from our intensive care unit (ICU) to the rehabilitation program, where occupational and physical therapists begin a program tailored specifically to the patient’s needs.

We use SCI-specific neurorehabilitative devices, including:

  • EKSO Exoskeleton, a wearable, robotic-powered device that helps people stand and walk
  • LiteGait, a device that controls weight bearing, posture, and balance over a treadmill or the ground

We also use repetitive locomotor training, an approach that promotes spinal and supraspinal learning, reorganizing, or strengthening the neural circuits that control movement. During therapy, a patient works with therapists one-on-one or two-to-one for gait training using a treadmill to help propel the patient’s leg forward in repetitive walking motion to stimulate the muscles and nerves.

If a patient’s arms and hands have been affected, we might use specific types of electrical stimulation and splinting with repetitive tasks to stimulate the muscles and nerves.

Support Services for Spinal Cord Injuries

Our team offers a wide variety of services to patients and family members, including:

  • Psychological counseling
  • Support groups
  • Educational programs to address all questions about SCIs and rehabilitation

Spinal Cord Injury Clinical Trials

We conduct clinical research that aims to improve treatment of spinal cord injuries. Patients should talk with their doctor to see if a clinical trial is available.

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