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Types of Spinal Cord Injuries


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Spinal cord injuries (SCIs) affect an estimated 450,000 people in the United States. More than half of all spinal cord injuries occur in patients between the ages of 16 and 30, and 80% of these are male. Nearly a third of SCIs are caused by automobile accidents, and a quarter of these injuries result from falls. There are many different types of SCIs that vary greatly in severity. If you or someone you know has suffered a spinal cord injury, it's helpful to understand the scope of the SCI and what it could mean for the future.

Complete Vs. Incomplete Spinal Cord Injuries

Drawing of parts of skeleton with drawing of spinal cord prominently displayed on a clipboard
Image via Unsplash by moonshadowpress

Spinal cord injuries are classified as either complete or incomplete. This is one of the first assessments that you'll likely receive if you're presenting with an injury to your spinal cord.

Complete Spinal Cord Injuries

A complete spinal cord injury severs all communication between the brain and the body beyond the point of injury. Complete spinal cord injuries create a total loss of sensory and motor function below the injury level. The right and left sides of the body are affected equally.

This loss of function is usually caused by compromised blood flow or a contusion to the spinal cord, also known as a bruise. In some cases, the spinal cord may suffer a partial or complete tear.

Incomplete Spinal Cord Injuries

An incomplete spinal cord injury leaves some sensory and motor function below the point of injury. There are varying degrees of incomplete injuries. The patient may retain more sensation and movement on one side of the body than the other. Patients may recover from incomplete spinal cord injuries to varying degrees, depending on the state of the patient's health and the specifics of the injury.

Spinal Cord Injury Levels

The level of a spinal cord injury determines which section of the spinal cord sustained trauma. All points below the level of the injury are affected, so a spinal cord injury that occurs higher on the spine will impact more of the body.

Cervical Spinal Cord Injuries

The cervical section of the spinal cord encompasses the top seven vertebrae from C-1 to C-7. Located in the neck, these vertebrae are the closest to the brain and will result in the most severe form of spinal cord injury. At this level, each vertebra is critical, and patients may experience a dramatic difference in ability depending upon the exact point of the injury. Symptoms based on injury location include:

  • C-1 to C-4: Paralysis of the hands, arms, legs, and trunk with the potential inability to breathe, cough, speak, or control the bladder and bowel movements.

  • C-5: Partial or total paralysis of the hands, wrists, trunk, and legs with weakened breathing and little to no bladder or bowel control. The patient may be able to lift the arms and bend the elbows.

  • C-6: Paralysis of the hands, legs, and trunk with weakened breathing and little or no bowel and bladder control. The patient may be able to bend the wrists.

  • C-7: Paralysis of the legs and trunk with little to no bladder and bowel control. The patient should retain movement in the arms and shoulders.

  • C-8: Paralysis of the legs and trunk with little to no bowel or bladder control. The patient should be able to grasp and release items with their hands.

Thoracic Spinal Cord Injuries

A thoracic spinal cord injury impacts the upper to middle part of the back at the vertebra between T-1 and T-12. The nerves from T-1 to T-5 affect control of the lungs and diaphragm. This part of the spine affects the upper chest, middle back, and abdominal muscles.

Nerves from T-6 to T-12 affect your posture and balance around the middle back and abdomen. They also help you cough. Injuries to this area can affect bladder and bowel control as well as leg movement and sensation.

Lumbar Spinal Cord Injuries

The lumbar area of the spine encompasses the L-1 to L-5 vertebrae. This part of the spine carries the most weight. Lumbar spinal cord injuries can impact the patient's ability to walk and control their bladder and bowels.

Sacral Spinal Cord Injuries

Sacral spinal cord injuries involve the five bones, S-1 to S-5, that comprise the sacrum. Injuries to this area typically cause loss of movement in the hips and legs with little or no control of the bowel and bladder. Those with an injury to the sacral part of the spine typically retain the ability to walk.

Spinal Cord Injury Grading

Spinal cord injuries are graded on a scale developed by the American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA). The less severity, the greater the likelihood of recovery. Doctors grade spinal cord injuries using two sensory exams, a motor exam, and an impairment scale. Muscles are rated on a scale of one to five, where five is normal muscle function and zero is total paralysis. ASIA classifications are:

  • A: Complete spinal cord injury with no motor or sensory function in sacral segments S-4 and S-5.

  • B: Incomplete spinal cord injury impacting segments S-4 and S-5. Though there is no motor function, the patient may have sensory function.

  • C: Incomplete spinal cord injury where some motor function is preserved. More than half of the muscles below the neurological level have a grade of 2 or lower.

  • D: Incomplete spinal cord injury where motor function is preserved and at least half of key muscles have a grade of 3 or greater, indicating that the muscles can move against gravity.

  • E: Normal sensory and motor functions.

When to Seek Medical Attention

You should seek medical attention if you suffer from any type of SCI. Common symptoms include weakness or decreased sensation in the arms or legs, pain in the neck or back, trouble breathing, and loss of bowel or bladder control. You may also notice lumps on the spine.

Get Help from a Personal Injury Attorney

Our personal injury lawyers at Goodman Acker can help you seek compensation if an at-fault party is involved in your injury. This can help you manage the costs associated with medical bills, physical therapy, loss of earning potential, and more. Contact us for a free consultation.