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7 Surprising (And Odd) Facts About Spinal Cord Injuries

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For most people, when they hear the word “quadriplegic,” their mind goes straight to an image of Christopher Reeve in his wheelchair. Or when they hear “spinal cord injury,” they think the worst of it is that we can’t walk.

But how a body is affected and can still function despite the main nerve being down is quite something. From lesser-known secondary effects to the body’s impressive resiliency, here are seven surprising facts about spinal cord injuries.

1) We can’t sweat.

The spinal cord may be the organ that helps the body feel and move, but it also tells your sweat glands when to kick in. Getting hotter and hotter is what some folks with higher spinal cord injuries have to go through until they finally cool off their body from the outside, either by dumping cold water on their skin or basking in the AC. Paraplegics however can usually sweat. This rule applies generally to quads.

2) 82% are men.

Out of everyone on the planet with a spinal cord injury, 82% are male. That’s quite the disparity between men vs. women and most think feel it’s because men are bigger risk-takers than women. Hard to argue there. Motor vehicle crashes, sports injuries, falls, men find themselves in these situations a lot more often.

3) Before the 1940s, our life expectancy was two years. 

There may be no cure for spinal injuries yet, but we’ve come a long way in improving long-term prospects for people with spinal cord injuries. Prospects before the 1940s were not good. It was before antibiotic use began to be widespread, which mean most died before the two year mark from slow deaths related to untreatable infections; bladder, blood and skin. Paralyzed WWII veterans are some of the first people in human history to move onto full lives post-injury.

4) Less sensation, less body hair.

One of the few bonuses of having a spinal cord injury (if you could call it that) is less body hair. Researchers have recently discovered that body hair grows better when it’s getting feedback from the brain. They’re not sure why, but it’s a phenomenon that’s been observed in most people with a spinal cord injury. So there you go, break your back, save money getting your leg follicles lasered away.

5) Some of us can’t cough.

Some of us with quadriplegic may be able to emit a tiny cough, but that’s about as fierce of a cough most of us can do. Reason why – spinal cord injuries don’t just effect the legs and arms, they can affect the chest wall muscles; everything becomes paralyzed below the level of injury. This is why respiratory failure remains the number one cause of death among people with higher spinal cord injuries. Coughing up phlegm is critical when fighting off colds, but the good news – cough-assist devices and techniques like these.

6) Some of us pee through our belly buttons.

Everyone thinks they know our going-to-the-bathroom secret, we use catheters—duh. But there’s one big secret mainstream society has no idea is possible—a surgery that allows you to pee through the belly button. That’s right, a hole is put in the belly button, with a new urinary conduit to boot. All you need to do is insert in a catheter, put a drainage cup between your legs, and you’re good to go. This fascinating surgery was invented by Dr. Mitrofanoff.

SEE ALSO: 15 Surprising Tricks Service Animals Can Do

7) Our legs can still move.

I mention this because mainstream society thinks paralysis equates to the legs being absolutely frozen in time—but this is not the case. Some people’s paralyzed legs can move and shake a lot on their own; anything causing pain below the level of injury can cause it. Lower level paraplegics however rarely get spasms One time when my legs spasmed while riding in an elevator, a guy who had a crush on me was there and he was hysterically overjoyed to see my legs move. “Oh they move!” (Pretty sure he thought he had just witnessed a miracle). And then suddenly, he wanted to chat me up like Pamela Anderson. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it wasn’t a miracle. I just had to pee.

So there you have it – odd facts regarding spinal cord injuries – a condition many are hoping may be cured one day soon. Stem cells may make spinal cord injuries a far off memory in the next 50 years, but in the meantime, knowing the inside scoop can never hurt.

SEE ALSO: Hollister, A & F: Enemies of the Disability Community (Storify) 

What spinal cord injury facts have blown you away?

Photo credit: •●pfaff / / CC BY-NC-ND

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About Tiffiny Carlson

Tiffiny Carlson is a writer and quadriplegic from Minneapolis. She has a C6 spinal cord injury from a diving accident when she was 14 years old. Writing and breaking stereotypes is her passion. She's been the SCI Life columnist for New Mobility magazine since 2003 and is the founder of the longtime disability site, Her work has also been featured in Penthouse, Playgirl and And when she's not writing, Tiffiny loves to cook and practice adaptive yoga.

11 Responses

  1. I enjoyed your article and found it very informative.

  2. [...] is using those platforms and others to share knowledge about spinal cord injuries. He gives daily updates on his activities, remaining influential and inspirational, a boon for [...]

  3. avatar Stacey says:

    The tragic thing is that in developing countries life expectancy for people who get a spinal injury is still horrifying. Last I read close to 75% die within 2 years. As a quad nearing 23 years post injury this was so confronting so I got involved in trying to make a difference in developing countries. Best thing I ever did. It is amazing how much just sharing our life experiences and what we know about preventing pressure areas and UTIs can do for improving their quality of life and to potentially save lives.

  4. avatar Cheryl Bianchi says:

    Thanks for posting this. My boy is a T6 complete as of a year and a half ago (20 at time of accident) …most people just freak about the immobility not even considering the other effects…he has been somewhat plagued with bladder + bowel issues…we have been very proactive and explore every suggestion on how to improve this…between supplements, minerals, herbs (uva ursa a god send!), exercise he has pretty much gotten the UTI’s under control…no antibiotics in months. Incontinence not so much. Doing another round of botox in the bladder today, in fact. But if anyone has any ideas on how to rein in this sucker …am all ears. Thank you.

  5. [...] See Also: 7 Surprising (and off) Facts About Spinal Cord Injuries [...]

  6. [...] MORE FROM THIS AUTHOR: 7 Surprising and Odd Facts About Spinal Cord Injuries [...]

  7. [...] My 6-year-old niece is a great example. She’s still too young to understand the concept of a spinal cord injury, so I just tell her my legs just don’t listen to me anymore, and she understand it [...]

  8. [...] say. My 6-year-old niece is a great example. She’s still too young to understand the concept of a spinal cord injury, so I just tell her my legs just don’t listen to me anymore, and she understand it [...]

  9. [...] Read More at The Mobility Resource: 7 Surprising (And Odd) Facts About Spinal Cord Injuries [...]

  10. avatar chris brown says:

    Great article… I found it while researching whether or not my sci had anything to do with my legs virtually going bald.

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