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Spinal Cord Injuries Explained: Why Damaged Neurological Pathways Cause Paralysis

Your spinal cord is made up of hundreds of tiny nerves and neurons that act as an essential communication highway for your brain to relay messages to your body. Nerves called upper motor neurons (UMN) act as the main highway connecting your brain to your spinal cord, which then carries all of the brain’s “messages” to the smaller roads that branch off the main highway called the lower motor neurons (LMN). LMNs are the nerves that travel to specific muscles or organs to relay the brain’s messages.

If you want to make a fist, your brain must send the proper message to your hand in order to close it. This path makes up the UMN and LMN. Try to think of your spinal cord as Interstate 10. I-10 would be the main highway of your upper motor neurons, while Bank St., Louisiana Avenue, and Enterprise Boulevard would be the path of your lower motor neurons that branch off to get you (the brain’s message) to your specific destination (in this case, your hand).

As a result of these two separate but equally important nerve functions, an injury to the spine has an increased chance of not only causing damage to a specific LMN but also causing a paralyzing traffic jam in the UMN.

Common Types of Spinal Injuries

  • UMN damage (Highway Nerves) – Messages from the brain are blocked, causing the LMN nerves to act on their own. This can produce involuntary spasms, seizures, and uncontrollable muscle tremors.
  • LMN damage (Road Nerves) – Resulting in selective paralysis, depending on the severity of the injury and which LMN was damaged. Each LMN controls a different part of the body so paralysis and trauma depends on which nerve was affected.
  • Mixed damage – Minor injuries to both the UMN and LMN can cause selective paralysis as well as well seizures, tremors and spasms, without causing complete paralysis.
  • Complete damage (Both UMN and LMN) – The brain can’t communicate with any of your nerves and muscles, shutting down all cognitive communication to your body—this results in complete paralysis.

Not all spinal cord injuries are severe; in some cases swelling can cause a temporary communication block from the brain to the nerves. As the swelling decreases, the messages slowly get through, lessening the temporary paralysis.

When you first experience a spinal cord trauma, it is extremely difficult to determine the severity and/or whether or not the trauma will be permanent. If you injure your back or neck, or feel numbness, uncontrollable muscle spasms, or paralysis, you should seek medical help immediately. Hesitating could cause the injury to worsen.

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