A spinal cord injury is one of the worst types of physical damages a person can suffer. The spinal cord is responsible for major parts of the body, including motor function and sensation. Serious damage can lead to permanent paralysis below the point of impact. Even “minor” spinal injuries can result in lasting pain and disability. Car accidents, slip and falls, birth injuries and acts of violence are just a few examples of incidents that could result in a spinal injury.
Here are the types of spinal cord injuries, and what they might mean for victims:
Approximately 282,000 people in the U.S. are currently living with spinal cord injuries. Incomplete spinal injuries mean that the patient reserves some function below the point of injury. This may manifest itself as a movement in one limb more than the other or feeling in areas of the body. A person can sustain an incomplete spinal injury at any level of the spinal cord. Incomplete tetraplegia is the most frequent type of spinal cord injury, followed by incomplete paraplegia.
Tetraplegia, also called quadriplegia, describes an injury above the first thoracic vertebra, within sections C1 to C8. A person who is tetraplegic will have some degree of paralysis in all four limbs. In severe cases, tetraplegia can interfere with the ability to breathe. The higher up the injury, the worse the damage will typically be. Incomplete tetraplegia means the patient still has some feeling or movement ability in the limbs.
Paraplegia occurs in injuries below the first thoracic spinal levels, or in sections T1 to L5. A person with paraplegia can use the arms and hands but will suffer the loss of movement and sensation in the legs. Serious cases may have paralysis from the waist down, interfering with sexual function and bladder control. Incomplete paraplegia may lead to the patient retaining some function or feeling in the legs, or only feeling tingling in the legs, and minor mobility issues.
A complete spinal cord injury leads to zero function – no sensation or movement – below the point of injury. A complete injury affects both sides of the body equally. Complete injuries can occur in any area of the spine. In a complete spinal injury, the brain has lost the ability to communicate any messages via the spinal cord. This is due to severe damage to the fibers and elements that communicate between the body and brain.
The location of paralysis will depend on the point of injury. Injury to the cervical spine will result in tetraplegia – complete paralysis from the neck down. Thoracic spine complete injury will cause paralysis below the waist or in the legs. A lumbar spine injury affects the legs, while sacral spine injury can cause paralysis in the hips and legs. Complete spinal cord injuries can prove fatal, typically because of issues with respiratory function.
Prognosis for Spinal Injuries
There is, unfortunately, no cure for spinal injuries. However, with physical therapy and rehabilitation, some incomplete spinal cord injury patients can regain some feeling or movement in the affected limbs. For the most part, victims of major spinal injuries will rely on assistive devices such as a wheelchair or ventilator for life. Patients with paraplegia and full control of the arms, on the other hand, can be independent with the use of a wheelchair, while paraplegics with some leg functions may be able to walk short distances with assistive devices.
The prognosis for a spinal cord injury will vary significantly depending on the location and severity of the injury. It may or may not be possible to improve movement and sensation with rehabilitation methods. Many types of counseling, therapies, and skill-building can help patients with spinal injuries rejoin the community, work full time, and adapt to their disabilities.