Frequently Asked Questions - Introduction

The spinal cord is a thick bundle of nerves that runs through the vertebrae (backbones) in your spine. This nerve bundle is about 18 inches long, starting at the base of your brain and ending at your buttocks. The spinal cord acts as a superhighway between your brain and the rest of your body. Want to take a step, or wriggle a finger? The message is normally sent through the spinal cord to these body parts, in the form of nerve impulses. The highway runs in both directions: stub a toe or touch something sharp, and those pain or pressure signals speed back up to your brain faster than you can say “ow.”

An accident that causes your vertebrae to break can also damage your spinal cord. And when the spinal cord is damaged, the highway is essentially closed. Nerve impulses can’t get through. This results in paralysis – loss of mobility and sensation – below the level of injury.

Not all spinal cord injuries cause complete paralysis. In the case of an incomplete spinal cord injury, a small stream of highway traffic still gets through. Someone with an incomplete SCI may have a certain amount of feeling or movement below the level of injury. Often, in the case of an incomplete SCI, one side of the body has more function than the other. Thanks to new medical treatments at the time of injury, incomplete spinal cord injuries are more common than they used to be. These same injuries might have been complete if they’d happened a couple of decades earlier.

The site of your injury will determine what parts of your body are paralyzed. The higher the injury, the more body parts that are affected. For instance, a spinal cord injury in the upper, or cervical, region of your spine will affect your arms as well as your trunk, legs and pelvic area (including bowel and bladder). Someone with this level of injury is considered to be quadriplegic. But an injury lower down, in the thoracic or lumbar region, won’t affect your arms. Someone with a spinal cord injury in either of these regions is considered to be paraplegic. About half of all people with SCI are quadriplegic, and half are paraplegic.


  • A spinal cord injury can happen to anyone at any time.
  • There are 600 new spinal cord injuries every year in Ontario (more than one a day) and current estimates indicate that there are approximately 33,140 Ontarians living with spinal cord injury. (Urban Futures Institute Report, 2010)
  • In Canada there are more than 1,500 new spinal cord injuries per year. There is an estimated 86,000 people living in the country with spinal cord injuries. (#s based on research by the Urban Futures Institute, 2010)
  • Spinal cord injury is one of the most traumatic events to occur in an individual’s life.
  • Spinal cord injury affects family, friends, employers, community and the health care system.
  • People can, and do, make a positive adjustment to life with a spinal cord injury given the right supports at the right time.
  • On average, it takes 2 to 3 years to attain sufficient independence following a spinal cord injury.
  • Intensive psycho-social support is a critical component to rehabilitation from the onset of injury, through acute hospitalization, rehabilitation and transition to community living.
  • It is estimated that the annual economic burden of traumatic SCI in Canada is approximately $3.6 billion, of which $1.8 billion is associated with direct health care costs. (Urban Futures Institute Report, 2010)
  • The top causes for traumatic spinal cord injuries in Ontario are:
    • unintentional falls – 43.2%
    • motor vehicle accidents – 42.8
  • In Ontario, males represent 68.4% of traumatic spinal cord injuries. Women represent 31.6%.
  • In Ontario, the highest incidence of traumatic injury is to individuals in the age range of 20-29 and to also, those over 70 years of age.
  • Problems related to pain, mobility and agility affected the largest number of adults. Nearly 3 million adults aged 15 and over, or 11% of this age group, reported one of these limitations. (PALS 2006)
  • Disabilities related to mobility were present in less than 2% of people between the ages of 15 and 24, but affected about 44% of individuals aged 75 and over. (PALS 2006)
  • Ontario reported a disability rate (15.5%) slightly higher than the national rate. (PALS 2006)
  • It is estimated that 90% of what we know about spinal cord injury has been discovered in the last 20 years. (Rick Hansen Institute)


Researchers at the University of Alberta show that intensive training after a cervical spinal cord injury leads to better recovery, because it can stimulate the rewiring of the nerves.Link here to go to the full article:

It’s normal to feel a range of emotions after a traumatic spinal cord injury. After all, many things about your life have changed, and your emotions can often take you on a wild ride.You might feel:

  • Anger
  • Grief
  • Denial
  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Helplessness
  • Sadness (Note: If you have symptoms of depression, like loss of energy, trouble concentrating, or feelings of hopelessness, get medical help immediately.)
  • Positive self-talk. Instead of telling yourself that no one will want to hire you or find you attractive, or that you’ll never have a family, remind yourself of your job skills, your lovability, your sparkling personality.
  • Self-care. Look after your medical needs and your general health. Avoid self-destructive behaviours like smoking or drugs.
  • Problem solving. Faced with a challenge? Be creative with a solution. Research shows that people with SCI who have good problem solving skills can more easily reach their goals.
  • Accepting help… and offering help. Know when to ask for and receive assistance. That can be an important part of problem solving. But don’t forget that you have something to offer others as well.
  • Doing things you enjoy. Now’s the time to put pleasure back into your life. Are you a nature lover? Get out of doors! Have a hobby? Why not rediscover it?
  • Connecting with peers. Share your ups and downs with other people with SCI – people who really get what you’re going through. CPA Ontario’s Peer Support program is a place to start.

Although it all may seem overwhelming, keep in mind that the way you feel right now may be different from the way you will feel next month, next year, or ten years from now. Listen to what these old-timers have to say:

“...I felt like I really stood out a lot when I was out in public. I was quite self-conscious about that. Now, I don’t think about it. I got over myself.”- Male, SCI since 1974

“…I saw a film of a woman who had been injured for more than 20 years. I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach. I couldn't imagine five years paralyzed, never mind 10 or more. But as each year passed, with life getting gradually and continually easier, I adjusted. You will find a surprising number of people willing to smooth the path, if you remain open to them and welcome them in. Keep trying to look ahead.”- Female, SCI since 1983

“…my very first thought was, ‘What am I going to do now?’ I was in the military when I had my injury. I was 19 years old, and had my future planned already – and all that changed in an instant. Today I am on a very different path, but one no less fun and fulfilling! I am happily married and have spent 20 years working within the federal government. I have travelled the world, met hundreds of interesting people and experienced many amazing sights. Fundamentally, my injury helped me set priorities for my life.” - Male, SCI since 1983