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Spinal cord injury

Spinal cord injury treatment and care in Minnesota and western Wisconsin

Whether it’s the result of a sudden fall, car accident, tumor or infection, a spinal cord injury can change your life completely. That’s why it’s crucial to get the best care from a coordinated team of experts who will be right there alongside you for every stage of your treatment and recovery.

At HealthPartners and Park Nicollet, our neuroscience physicians, therapists and other specialists work together as a team to create a spinal cord injury treatment plan centered on you. We use the latest technology and decades of medical expertise to perform a comprehensive assessment, determine what’s needed to optimize your function and start tailored treatment right away.

Our personalized spinal cord injury care incorporates a full range of recovery and support services, including therapy-based rehabilitation, counseling, self-care education and regular checkups. We focus on maximizing your independence with mobility and activities of daily living in order to enhance your well-being and improve your personal life. Through compassionate treatment from specialists you know and trust, we’ll help you achieve your goals, celebrate every milestone and find new ways to live and thrive.

What is a spinal cord injury?

Your spinal cord is a long, thin column of nerve tissue that runs from the base of your brain down most of your back. Carrying messages between your brain and nerves all over your body, your spinal cord helps control movement, sensation, reflexes and much more. Vertebrae (back bones) protect your spinal cord and the spinal nerves attached to it, while tendons and ligaments hold your entire spinal structure together.

A spinal cord injury (SCI) happens when your spinal cord or spinal nerves become damaged. As a result, messages can’t travel effectively between your brain and your body. This leads to problems with movement, sensation and other physical functions. The exact symptoms and effects of a spinal cord injury depend on the injury’s location. Generally, SCIs closer to the brain affect more areas and functions of the body, while injuries lower down the back affect fewer areas and functions.

Spinal cord injuries can happen for many reasons. Trauma – like from a sports injury, fall or car accident – can cause your vertebrae to damage your spinal cord or spinal nerves. Other times, a birth defect, tumor, infection or blood loss can compress your spinal cord or deprive your cord of what it needs to communicate with your brain.

Different spinal cord injuries need different care and rehabilitation. Through it all, our focus is always on creating the most appropriate treatment plan for your particular injury so you can pursue your interests and live life to the fullest.

Diagnosing a spinal cord injury

We’ll ask you questions about your symptoms, learn more about what caused them and discuss any treatment you’ve received so far. We’ll also usually test your motor function, reflexes and reactions to different sensations.

In many cases, we’ll also use imaging tests to assess the state of your spinal cord injury:

  • X-rays – X-ray scans create an image of your spinal column that can help us detect problems with your vertebrae and other abnormalities.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – An MRI scan produces images that help us identify spinal cord issues like herniated discs, tumors and blood clots.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scans – These scans produce a series of cross-sectional images that help us further pinpoint bone, nerve, tendon or ligament problems.

Based on your physical exam and test results, we’ll determine where you’re at in your healing and recovery process. We’ll also work together on a treatment plan suited to your needs and goals.

Types of spinal cord injuries

Your spine is divided into sections, based on how the vertebrae are labeled. From top to bottom, these sections are the cervical spine, thoracic spine, lumbar spine and sacral spine, which ends in the tailbone (coccyx).

Spinal nerves in the area of each vertebra control body parts near and below that area. Because nerve signals cannot pass beyond damaged areas, more of your body is affected the closer to your brain your spinal cord injury occurs.

We’ll use a letter and a number (such as C7, T8, L2 or S1) to name your spinal cord injury. Based on spinal section and vertebra number, these indicate the lowest level of your spinal nerves that are still working properly.

Spinal cord injury treatment

Initial treatment for spinal cord injury focuses on avoiding further nerve damage and preventing possible complications. Depending on where you are in your recovery, we may immobilize you, or certain parts of your body, to stabilize and align your spine. We may also perform surgery using the latest technology to relieve pressure on your spinal cord or spinal nerves.
Ongoing spinal cord injury treatment focuses on helping you adapt to your new levels of sensation and mobility. Your care team may consist of rehabilitation physicians, therapists, neurologists, neurosurgeons, nurses and other experts from across HealthPartners and Park Nicollet. We’ll collaborate with you and your family to help you understand your spinal cord injury and what you can expect in the weeks and months to come.
We understand that a spinal cord injury may mean significant life adjustments for you and your loved ones. We’ll be there to answer all your questions and empower you and your family, supporting you with the right care and introducing you to new and advanced technologies that help you succeed and excel.


Recovering from a spinal cord injury is different for everyone. For some it may mean regaining muscle control or changing your home’s layout, while for others it may involve new ways of getting around or doing what you enjoy.

Our rehabilitation physicians and therapists work closely with you and our spinal cord specialists to develop a comprehensive treatment plan that meets your needs. Rehabilitation services are available on both an inpatient and outpatient basis, including at our Neuroscience Center in St. Paul where we combine the latest care, innovative research and powerful resources under one roof.

Your personalized treatment plan may include:

  • Physical therapy – Physical therapy helps you rebuild and maintain muscle strength and coordination so you can perform at your best. Depending on how your spinal cord injury has affected you, you’ll learn ways to increase flexibility and range of motion in your legs, arms or upper body.
  • Occupational therapy – Occupational therapy focuses on the skills necessary to complete daily tasks and get the most out of life. Our therapists will learn more about your routines and what you like to do, helping you get back to them or engage in new ways.
  • Assistive technology and devices – Some people use advanced adaptive technology, such as environmental controls, to make life after a spinal cord injury easier and more comfortable. Braces, wheelchairs, walkers and other equipment can also help you get around and complete your favorite hobbies. We’ll show you how to use these tools to support your lifestyle, and we’ll offer suggestions for adjusting your home or work space to make the most of your new assistive devices.
  • Additional support – Beyond sensation and movement, a spinal cord injury can involve other changes to how your body functions. From bladder and bowel training to family planning solutions and more, our specialists can help you understand these changes as well as provide techniques, instruments and medications to help you manage them.

Clinical trials

Clinical trials can offer new or experimental options for people seeking additional spinal cord injury treatment choices. Please visit the HealthPartners Institute for more information about active clinical trials.


A spinal cord injury is often a sudden event. You may feel grief, anger or disbelief at what’s happened or what’s ahead.

Caring for your mental health is just as important as looking after your physical health. Our counselors, social workers and psychologists are available to help you share your feelings and process different emotions. We can help you and your family with anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns. We can also connect you to support groups and other resources in your community.

Self-care and further resources

People who have experienced a spinal cord injury can be at increased risk for other conditions, like pressure sores, obesity, diabetes, urinary tract infections and respiratory infections. This is because altered levels of mobility and sensation affect your body’s ability to respond to these conditions.

Our team can help you take charge with proactive ways to stay healthy and live your best life. We can also connect you with dietitians and other experts to enhance your nutrition and well-being, and we’ll support you with specialized ongoing care at regular checkups.

Rethinking what’s possible: Richard’s story

Our customized spinal cord injury care includes many unique opportunities that help make your daily activities easier to complete. That way, you can stay in control of your routines and interests.

Richard Johnson, who uses a wheelchair, joined us for a three-part series of cooking classes specifically designed for people with spinal cord injuries. “Before the classes, I didn’t do a lot of cooking,” Richard shared. “The classes helped me with cutting, using utensils and devices like can openers – the little things that make cooking much easier. My wife and kids also thought the classes were great. It was interesting for them to see that I can do these things, that I don’t have to be limited. I can’t wait for their next program.”

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

If you or someone you care for has recently experienced a sudden or traumatic injury and notices any of the following signs, call 911 immediately:

  • Difficulty moving, or inability to move, any part of your body
  • Lack of control over your bladder or bowels
  • Numbness, prickliness or no sensation in your limbs, hands or feet
  • Problems breathing, balancing or walking
  • Severe pain or pressure in your head, neck or back

Sometimes, symptoms of a spinal cord injury appear more gradually. If you experience any of the following signs – especially after an injury to the neck, back or spine – it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor as soon as possible:

  • Changed or missing sensation in response to temperature or touch
  • Changes to sexual function, bladder control or bowel control
  • Intense, stinging pain in your head, neck or back
  • Problems moving, breathing or coughing
  • Severe spasms or excessive reflexes

If you think someone may have injured their spine, do not move the person. You may make any potential damage worse. Instead:

  • Call 911.
  • Help the person stay still. This may involve holding the head or neck, or using blankets to prevent movement.
  • Provide any basic first aid you can without moving the person.
  • Wait for emergency services to arrive.

Complete and incomplete are two ways doctors classify a spinal cord injury.

A complete spinal cord injury means you likely have no sensation or mobility below the level of injury. An incomplete spinal cord injury means there is some degree of sensation or mobility below the injury level. We offer comprehensive care for both types of spinal cord injury.

We use the ASIA scale, developed by the American Spinal Injury Association, to further categorize spinal cord injury. Your doctor will rate your injury as an A, B, C, D or E depending on your sensation and mobility:

  • A – You have a complete spinal cord injury, resulting in no feeling or movement below the area of injury.
  • B – You have an incomplete spinal cord injury, with feeling, but not movement, below the area of injury.
  • C – You have an incomplete spinal cord injury, with feeling and some weak movement below the area of injury.
  • D – You have an incomplete spinal cord injury, with feeling and strong movement below the area of injury.
  • E – You have normal feeling and movement below the area of injury.

Different ASIA scale ratings can influence your treatment plan and rehabilitation. We’ll make sure you get the care that’s right for you.

Spinal cord injuries occurring at the level of your cervical spine may cause loss of feeling and movement in your arms, legs and upper body. We call this tetraplegia, sometimes known as quadriplegia.

Spinal cord injuries that occur lower down your back may cause loss of feeling and movement in the legs only. This is known as paraplegia.

If your spinal cord injury results in tetraplegia or paraplegia, our doctors and specialists have years of experience putting together tailored treatment plans. Our compassionate experts are here to help you and your family get the highest quality care and support.

Even years afterward, it’s never too late to seek care for chronic spinal cord injury symptoms or effects. Our specialists have helped patients whose injuries occurred decades ago improve their day-to-day lives and find more effective ways to follow their passions. We can help you, too – no matter when your injury happened.

We accept most health insurance plans, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, CIGNA, HealthPartners, Medica, Medicare, PreferredOne and many others.

Not sure what your insurance covers? Call the number on the back of your card for help looking at your options.

Don’t have your card in front of you? Here are member services numbers to help you get started: