Spinal cord injury occurs when there is any damage to the spinal cord that blocks communication between the brain and the body. After a spinal cord injury, a person’s sensory, motor and reflex messages are affected and may not be able to get past the damage in the spinal cord. In general, the higher on the spinal cord the injury occurs, the more dysfunction the person will experience. Injuries are referred to as complete or incomplete, based on whether any movement and sensation occurs at or below the level of injury.
The most important – and sometimes frustrating – thing to know is that each person’s recovery from spinal cord injury is different.
All spinal cord injuries are divided into two broad categories: incomplete and complete.
With incomplete injuries, the cord is only partially severed, allowing the injured person to retain some function. In these cases, the degree of function depends on the extent of the injuries.
By contrast, complete injuries occur when the spinal cord is fully severed, eliminating function. Though, with treatment and physical therapy, it may be possible to regain some function.
Incomplete spinal cord injuries are increasingly common, thanks in part to better treatment and increased knowledge about how to respond—and how not to respond—to a suspected spinal cord injury. These injuries now account for more than 60% of spinal cord injuries, which means we're making real progress toward better treatment and better outcomes.
Some of the most common types of incomplete or partial spinal cord injuries include:
This type of injury, to the front of the spinal cord, damages the motor and sensory pathways in the spinal cord. You may retain some sensation, but struggle with movement.
This injury is an injury to the center of the cord, and damages nerves that carry signals from the brain to the spinal cord. Loss of fine motor skills, paralysis of the arms, and partial impairment—usually less pronounced—in the legs are common. Some survivors also suffer a loss of bowel or bladder control, or lose the ability to sexually function.
This variety of injury is the product of damage to one side of the spinal cord. The injury may be more pronounced on one side of the body; for instance, movement may be impossible on the right side, but may be fully retained on the left. The degree to which Brown-Sequard patients are injured greatly varies from patient to patient.
Knowing the location of your injury and whether or not the injury is complete can help you begin researching your prognosis and asking your doctor intelligent questions. Doctors assign different labels to spinal cord injuries depending upon the nature of those injuries. The most common types of spinal cord injuries include:
These injuries, which are the result of damage to the cervical spinal cord, are typically the most severe, producing varying degrees of paralysis of all limbs. Sometimes known as quadriplegia, tetraplegia eliminates your ability to move below the site of the injury, and may produce difficulties with bladder and bowel control, respiration, and other routine functions. The higher up on the cervical spinal cord the injury is, the more severe symptoms will likely be.
This occurs when sensation and movement are removed from the lower half of the body, including the legs. These injuries are the product of damage to the thoracic spinal cord. As with cervical spinal cord injuries, injuries are typically more severe when they are closer to the top vertebra.
Triplegia causes loss of sensation and movement in one arm and both legs, and is typically the product of an incomplete spinal cord injury.
Injuries below the lumbar spinal cord do not typically produce symptoms of paralysis or loss of sensation. They can, however, produce nerve pain, reduce function in some areas of the body, and necessitate several surgeries to regain function. Injuries to the sacral spinal cord, for instance, can interfere with bowel and bladder function, cause sexual problems, and produce weakness in the hips or legs. In vary rare cases, sacral spinal cord injury survivors suffer temporary or partial paralysis.
Vertebrae are grouped into sections. The higher the injury on the spinal cord, the more
dysfunction can occur.
Thoracic vertebrae are located in the mid-back.
Christopher & Dana Reeves understand how frightening it is to suddenly become paralyzed. Being active one day and immobile the next thrusts you suddenly into an entirely new existence. The changes are enormous and often overwhelming.First, let us assure you that you are not alone. In the United States,there are 1.25 million people living with paralysis caused by spinal cord injury, and hundreds of thousands of others with paralysis caused by other types of trauma or disease. Although it’s a club no one would choose to join, there are people who have gone through similar situations who are eager to help you maximize your health and well-being.
The PRC was created by the Christopher & Dana Reeves Foundation to provide information services and resources on the full range of topics related to paralysis, including specific health and clinical information on the various conditions that cause paralysis,whether by stroke, trauma or disease. We have strong ties with many national organizations to make sure you get the most relevant and reliable information.
Paralysis Resource Guide (18816 KB)
To ensure that you receive the proper rehabilitation after your spinal cord injury, follow the instructions of your doctor or therapist. This can include attending regularly scheduled medical appointments for continued therapy and follow-up.
Seek the professional help of a counselor, psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or other mental health provider if you have persistent feelings of anxiety, sad- ness, and anger about your spinal cord injury.
Explore the resources that are offered by local groups, state support groups, and nationally recognized spinal cord injury organizations. Be cautious of searching the Internet for topics related to spinal cord injury; instead, rely on websites from reputable organizations that have consolidated information, checklists, and helpful tools.
Keep the lines of communication open among family and friends. Convey how you are feeling and what you are thinking. Your family and friends also may be adjusting to your spinal cord injury.
If you have pain related to cord injury, speak with your doctor. Complementary therapies such as acupuncture, guided imagery, biofeedback, hypnosis, and yoga can reduce pain. They also may help you cope with stress and improve your emotional and physical well-being.
Eating a healthy diet can help you reduce your risk of some complications of spinal cord injury. Good nutrition can help you reach and stay at a healthy weight. Being either underweight or overweight increases your risk of pressure sores.
While in rehab, your rehab team will help you to do various exercises to ensure movement. You may be able to do flexibility exercises on your own or with assistance. Strength exercises with free weights or weight machines also can be beneficial.
Mobility is an important part of a spinal cord injury. With the help of mobility devices such as scooters, crutches, walkers, or wheelchairs, you can become independent. These devices may allow you to work, shop, or travel.