Dr. Tonuzi and staff member chatting and smiling with a patient

Levels & Types of Spinal Cord Injuries

The spinal cord is a bundle of cells and nerves. Its primary purpose is to send and receive signals to and from the brain. Any injury in the spinal cord can interrupt those signals. The extent of interruption is based on where the injury occurred and how severely the spine was injured. When injured, your doctor may talk about the level, type, and severity. Your ability to understand what they mean when talking about your spinal cord injuries can help you know what to expect as you start rehabilitation. It will also enable your Brooks Rehabilitation healthcare team to come up with ideas regarding how to best care for your injury.

Therefore, we want to explain a little of what your doctors may be saying, and give you an idea of what it means for your care. To start, it is important to understand that when talking about a spinal cord injury, or SCI, it means that damage has occurred to the spinal cord, the tissues around it, or to the vertebrae (bones) that support and protect it all. From there, your recovery will depend on what type of damage there is, and where it’s located.

Spinal Cord Types

There are two spinal cord injury types. You will either have a complete spinal cord injury or an incomplete spinal cord injury.

Complete Spinal Cord Injury

A complete spinal cord injury means that the spine is permanently damaged. When talking about a complete injury to the spinal cord, you may be diagnosed with:

  • Paraplegia: When you have paraplegia, it means your injury has caused you to lose movement and sensation in your body.
  • Tetraplegia: The worst possible diagnosis is tetraplegia. It can cause paralysis that affects every limb because it is an injury to the cervical spine.

Your specific diagnosis will depend on the area that is affected. Triplegia is another term that you may hear. It occurs when you have an incomplete injury to the spine. They can diagnose you with triplegia if complications occur after your original injury.

Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury

An incomplete injury to the spinal cord may affect your ability to move and how much you can feel. Again, it mostly depends on which area of the spinal cord is damaged. Some terms you may hear regarding your injury include:

  • Brown-Sequard Syndrome: This indicates that one side of your spine has been injured.
  • Anterior Cord Syndrome: If you hear this term, it means that your spinal cord has sustained damage on the front side. It may also mean that some senses and motor function have been affected.
  • Central Cord Syndrome: When you hear this term, it means that there is some nerve damage because it involves the spinal cord’s center.

What makes one injury complete or incomplete?

If it is a complete spinal injury, you will lose the ability to move or feel parts of your body below the injury, which indicates paralysis. The paralysis may occur instantly or over time as your injury swells.

Incomplete spinal injuries are those that allow you to still have some feeling below the injury. It is the injury type that may leave you feeling:

  • Numbness or tingling in your hands and feet
  • Pain in your head, neck, or back
  • Curvature of your spine
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Difficulty walking or breathing
  • Sexual dysfunction

This is not a complete list of all the potential effects. If you feel something that doesn’t feel right, you should contact your doctor to see if it’s related to your injuries. You should also know that, as proven by some car accident victims, injuries can often develop well after the incident because there’s usually both primary and secondary damage. Primary damage is whatever caused the injury. Secondary damage occurs because of swelling or inflammation, which can press on the vertebrae and spinal cord.

Spinal Cord Injury Levels

There are four different levels in your spine, and there are many nerves encased within it. Overall, there are 31 pairs of spinal nerves and roots that are protected by your spine’s vertebrae. Each part can determine the type of pain or other effects that you may have after the injury. To help you understand your injury, we want to talk a little about the location or “level” of it.

Cervical Spinal Cord Injuries

The cervical spine is the area of your spinal cord that is in your neck and just above the shoulders. Because of its location, any damage to it can be severe. There are seven cervical vertebrae. They’re called C1 – C7. Injury to this area may cause:

  • Neck or arm pain and weakness
  • Loss of coordination
  • Muscle spasms in the legs or an unsteady gait
  • An inability to hold items
  • Less muscle tone in arms

Thoracic Spinal Cord Injuries

The area below the cervical spine is the Thoracic, which attaches to your rib cage. This is the largest part of your spine. It’s referred to as the T1 – T12 vertebrae. Injuries can cause pain in the upper chest, and mid-back. Sometimes, it may also affect your abdomen.

Lumbar Spinal Cord Injuries

Five vertebrae define the lumbar area. They’re referred to as L1 – L5. Injuries can affect the hips and your legs. Depending on the severity of the injury, you may require a wheelchair or leg braces to help you walk if your lumbar is injured. You may feel pain or numbness in your back, buttocks, or down your legs and feet. The pain may also affect one side or both sides of your body.

Sacral Spinal Cord Injuries

The pelvic area of your body is where you will find the sacral spinal cord. There are several sacral vertebrae that make up the sacrum, or your tailbone. Injuries to this area may cause pain in the hips, thighs, pelvic area, and more. You may also experience:

  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Low back pain
  • Leg pain, especially down the back of the legs
  • Other sensory issues in the groin or buttocks

Sacral issues are rarer than other injuries, and they may be uncomfortable. However, in most cases, this spinal injury will not affect your ability to walk.

Spinal Cord Injury Treatment Options

Spinal cord injuries can happen for many reasons. Mostly, they stem from vehicle accidents or a fall. However, violent attacks, sport injuries, surgical injuries, work-related accidents, and even some diseases may cause damage to your spinal cord.

No matter where your spinal cord injury has occurred, we can help you get on the road to recovery using proven technologies and techniques. Some rehabilitation options you will have when choosing us are:

Along with these services, we also offer psychology services to help you deal with the changes that may come from a spinal cord injury and the stress that may come from trying to heal. We never stop trying to learn more about helping our clients heal, and new services and techniques are being added often.

Dealing with a spinal cord injury is difficult. There is often a long road to recovery. However, we will do our best to make it easier for you, your family, your caregivers, and more. Learn more about spinal cord injuries or call us at (904) 345-7373 to learn more about the many services that Brooks Rehabilitation can provide for you.

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