Once you understand what it's like to live with paralysis, deciding to support the research that could reverse many of the complications associated with the condition is easy. Read on for a better understanding of spinal cord injury (SCI) and the complications of paralysis. It's about much more than movement.

What is spinal cord injury?
SCI is caused by damage to the nerves within the spinal cord. This impacts the cord's ability to send and receive messages from the brain. Many understand that SCI affects mobility and movement — but other systems are also affected. The systems that control sensory and autonomic functions (bowel, bladder, sexual function) can also be impaired.

1 in 50 Americans are living with paralysis

What is the difference between a complete injury and an incomplete injury?
You may have heard the terms "incomplete" and "complete" used to describe a spinal cord injury. An incomplete injury means that there is movement or sensation below the level of injury. Even a small movement or faint sensation indicates the spinal cord wasn't totally severed and some signals are getting past the injury. A complete injury means that the individual has no sensation or movement below the level of injury. An "injury level" is typically defined by the vertebrae where the injury took place, such as C5 or T6.

What is it like to live with paralysis?
Spinal cord injury goes far beyond immobility. Complications stem from the loss of muscle mass, recurring skin breakdowns, infections and compromised cardiovascular and respiratory function. In many cases, living with paralysis means living without the ability to control bladder, bowel, temperature, and sexual function. These secondary complications of paralysis can dramatically affect health and quality of life. Oftentimes, secondary complications of paralysis can be life-threatening.


The University of Louisville maintains a patient registry for individuals who are interested in participating in clinical research studies at the University. If you are living with paralysis and would like to learn more or be considered as a research participant, please add yourself to the registry.


Complications with Autonomic Functions Have a Huge Impact

Many people don't know that individuals living with paralysis lose the ability to control functions like bladder or bowel. Some may even believe that not being able to walk is the worst part of paralysis. But secondary complications that impair autonomic functions dramatically affect quality of life and independence, as well as cause tremendous medical challenges like infection and pain.

A 2004 Journal of Neurotrama survey of people living with paralysis ranked regaining sexual function and bowel and bladder control over walking.

While the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation is committed to working toward the ultimate goal of getting people up and out of wheelchairs, it is critical for the research field to address secondary complications in the here and now.

Complications with autonomic functions not only impact health and quality of life — they can add up to considerable costs. According to the University of Alabama National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average yearly cost of SCI can range from $228,566 to $775,567 in the first year of the injury. Over a patient's lifetime, SCI can cost over $3 million.

Secondary complications include:
  • Loss of body temperature control, including an inability to sweat
  • Loss of bladder function
  • Loss of bowel function
  • Loss of sexual function
  • Challenges with cardiovascular and respiratory function
  • Pain
  • Depression

Over a lifetime, spinal cord injury can cost a patient over $3 million
Bowel and Bladder Function: The Reality of Paralysis

To understand the impact of a lack of bowel and bladder function in people living with paralysis, it helps to have an idea of what needs to be done each day to cope with these complications.

Bowel Function

A daily "bowel program" becomes part of the routine for individuals living with SCI. The program involves scheduling bowel movements encouraged by mini-enemas, suppositories, and digital stimulation or manual emptying of the bowel. This may require in-home assistance. In some cases, individuals may undergo a colostomy procedure — a surgery in which an alternate opening is created for waste to leave the body and be captured in a bag.

Bladder Function

Most people will need to use a catheter for the purposes of emptying urine. This takes time each day to maintain, and makes people more susceptible to repeated urinary tract and bladder infections, as well as potential kidney damage. These complications can result in autonomic dysreflexia (AD) or systemic infection which can be life-threatening. There is also the distraction of making sure an accessible bathroom is always within reach.

Take a minute and consider how just these complications of paralysis could impact your daily life, and make the easy choice — donate now.


Will epidural stimulation work in other spinal cord injury participants? All signs point to yes. Our goal is to fund research in 36 new participants — men and women from a range of backgrounds — to prove that it's effective. Giving $36, or whatever you can, could help change what it means to live with paralysis.

GIVE 36 MEN & WOMENa second chance


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