Spinal Cord Injury (SCI): Emergency Care

Contact Information

(608) 263-8412

UW Health Orthopedics and Rehabilitation in Madison, Wisconsin provides comprehensive treatment for spinal cord injury (SCI).


In an emergency situation, it should be assumed that the person has a spinal cord injury if they have had a traumatic accident. When is doubt, assume a spinal cord injury exists.


Immediate Action


The trauma may cause both a head injury and a spinal cord injury. Do not move the person. Keep him or her immobile and call 9-1-1.


The exception is if the injured person's position would result in death, such as lying face down in water or in a burning car. Then the person's spine must be stabilized from head to below the buttocks and the person must be moved as one unit, like a log. If the injured vertebrae are allowed to move, further damage to the spinal cord may occur, with the patient potentially experiencing further disability. At the scene of  the accident, trained emergency personnel use a rigid collar and secure the injured person to a rigid body board to immobilize the spine.


Time is Critical


A person with a suspected spinal cord injury should receive immediate emergency care. The time between the injury and emergency treatment is a critical factor affecting the eventual outcome. There is an eight-hour window of opportunity when corticosteroids such as methylprednisolone may be administered to control the swelling and inflammation associated with the injury.


Though the initial trauma of the accident itself causes damage to the spinal cord and disrupts blood flow, the secondary effects of inflammation and swelling further compromise the spinal cord tissue and may increase the extent of the injury.


In the Emergency Department, diagnostic studies are performed to determine the severity and of spinal cord injury and the amount of boney and ligament instability.