What are the levels and types of spinal cord injuries?

The spinal cord is a complex system. It runs from the brain stem to the lower back and is protected by the vertebral column. The spinal cord carries information between the brain and the rest of the body, such as feeling, movement and breathing. Where the spinal cord is damaged results in loss of function below that level. Different degrees of spinal cord injuries (SCIs) in various locations can result in a wide range of effects. 

Each spinal cord injury is highly unique. Doctors and care providers use a few different sets of terminology to differentiate them. This article covers some common classification systems your care providers may use to talk about your SCI.

How are spinal cord injuries classified?

Spinal cord injuries may be categorized by the location of the injury, the cause and the extent of damage to the spinal cord. Injuries can occur in the cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacral regions. 

Incomplete and complete SCI refer to the amount of function a person has below their level of injury. In an incomplete injury, the spinal cord can send some signals to and from the brain. In a complete injury, there is no communication below the level of injury. 

What are the levels and types of spinal cord injuries?

A significant part of SCI rehabilitation is education about the spinal cord’s functions and how injuries can affect the body. This can help you understand what your recovery and rehabilitation process will look like and what kinds of accommodations you’ll need.

Injuries closer to the top of the spinal cord will affect more of the body. Symptoms can include pain, tingling, numbness, paralysis, loss of bladder and bowel control, and more. These may be temporary, or they can be permanent.

Understanding the different types of spinal cord injuries and their levels of severity can help you communicate with your care providers. The following are the main categories and classifications used to describe spinal cord injuries:

  • Injury by region — The four regions of the spine are the cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacral regions. The vertebrae are numbered starting at the top, with C1 to C7 in the cervical region, down to the sacrum. Each region has a different number of vertebrae: seven cervical vertebrae, 12 thoracic, five lumbar and five sacral. Typically, an SCI affects parts of the body below the site of the injury.
  • Primary and secondary injuries The most common cause of SCI is external trauma, such as motor vehicle accidents. Nontraumatic spinal cord injury can result from things like tumors, blood loss and stenosis. After the initial injury, patients typically experience an acute secondary phase with various biological responses. These can include inflammation, vascular damage, ionic imbalances, free-radical formation and neurotransmitter accumulation.
  • Incomplete and complete injuries — In a complete spinal cord injury, muscle control, feeling and function are lost below the injury site. Patients may recover some sensation and function within the first six months to a year of rehabilitation. However, there’s no way to completely reverse damage to the spinal cord.
  • Spinal cord injury syndromes — Some incomplete SCI, like anterior cord syndrome or central cord syndrome, develop distinct sets of symptoms. Depending on the site and the mechanics of the injury, patients may lose sensation and movement on both sides of the body or on one side. 

How are the effects of spinal cord injury treated?

Spinal cord injuries can cause sensory, motor and autonomic symptoms that affect processes you don’t consciously think about. Infections, lack of blood flow (ischemia) and autoimmune conditions require immediate treatment. People with an SCI may need a breathing tube, medications or a catheter to maintain proper functions. Dietary changes, compression socks and other lifestyle adjustments can help alleviate some symptoms as well.

An emergency team will begin treatment for spinal cord injuries, which continues in an intensive care unit (ICU). Immobilizing the affected area is a critical part of first aid for an SCI. Doctors may recommend surgery, traction, medication, and devices like splints or braces to keep the area from moving.

Following an SCI, a patient may need different types of therapy and support to continue healing and rehabilitating. Physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy can help patients restore as much function as possible. They also help patients adjust to life changes. Psychotherapy for the emotional impact of a spinal cord injury may be necessary. Some patients will need in-home care and support after their injury.

It’s especially important for SCI patients to check for pressure sores and relieve pressure as necessary. A pressure sore forms when skin and underlying tissue over a bony area are damaged from reduced blood flow. Pressure sores can happen quickly but take a long time to heal.

Ability KC can help with rehabilitation for spinal cord injury

Recovering after a spinal cord injury takes time and highly personalized care. Patients with an SCI should look for a comprehensive rehab program with an interdisciplinary team. With the right care, many patients are able to adapt to any changes and recover a high quality of life.

In our day rehabilitation and outpatient rehabilitation programs, patients receive care from an integrated team of specialists. This includes physical, occupational, and speech therapies along with neuropsychology as needed.

Ability KC is a designated Comprehensive Outpatient Rehabilitation Facility (CORF). We also have a Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF) accreditation.

Are you looking for an SCI rehabilitation program right now? Contact our team today for more information or to schedule an initial appointment.