J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 84:201-207 doi:10.1136/jnnp-2012-304001
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Research paper

Body image distortions following spinal cord injury

  1. Patrick Haggard1
  1. 1Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, London, UK
  2. 2Dipartimento di Psicologia, Università degli Studi di Roma, Rome, Italy
  3. 3Istituto di Ricovero e Cura a Carattere Scientifico, Fondazione Santa Lucia, Rome, Italy
  4. 4Department of Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck, University of London, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr C T Fuentes, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, 17 Queen Square, London WC1N 3AR, UK; c.fuentes{at}
  • Received 23 August 2012
  • Revised 30 October 2012
  • Accepted 2 November 2012
  • Published Online First 1 December 2012


Background Following spinal cord injury (SCI) or anaesthesia, people may continue to experience feelings of the size, shape and posture of their body, suggesting that the conscious body image is not fully determined by immediate sensory signals. How this body image is affected by changes in sensory inputs from, and motor outputs to, the body remains unclear.

Methods We tested paraplegic and tetraplegic SCI patients on a task that yields quantitative measures of body image. Participants were presented with an anchoring stimulus on a computer screen and told to imagine that the displayed body part was part of a standing mirror image of themselves. They then identified the position on the screen, relative to the anchor, where each of several parts of their body would be located. Veridical body dimensions were identified based on measurements and photographs of participants.

Results Compared with age matched controls, paraplegic and tetraplegic patients alike perceived their torso and limbs as elongated relative to their body width. No effects of lesion level were found.

Conclusions The common distortions in body image across patient groups, despite differing SCI levels, imply that a body image may be maintained despite chronic sensory and motor loss. Systematic alterations in body image follow SCI  although our results suggest these may reflect changes in body posture, rather than loss of specific sensorimotor pathways. These findings provide new insight into how the body image is maintained, and may prove useful in treatments that intervene to manipulate the body image.

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