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Incomplete vs. Complete Spinal Cord Injury


Thursday, April 6th, 2017

Understanding a spinal cord injury can be challenging. Injuries are classified by levels, according to where along the spinal column the injury occurs.

Facts About Spinal Cord Injury

Your spinal cord is a communication highway between your brain and the rest of your body. It is protected by your spinal column, or backbone, which is made up of 33 bones called vertebrae.

Nerves branch off from your spinal cord to communicate with your limbs and organs and control your bodily functions. An injury to your spinal column can damage the spinal cord, disrupting those nerve signals.

There are two main classifications of a spinal cord injury: complete and incomplete.

Complete Spinal Cord Injury

A complete spinal cord injury means that the nerves below the point of injury cannot communicate at all with the brain anymore. This leads to paralysis below the location of the injury.

Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury

An incomplete injury means that some nerve signals can still be sent along the spinal cord to the brain, even from below the injury site. You may have some movement and sensation with an incomplete injury. The level of movement or sensation varies greatly among people with an injury.

Symptoms of Spinal Cord Injury

You may be familiar with many signs of a spinal cord injury, including loss of movement and/or feeling in your arms or legs. Other symptoms include:

  • Difficulty or inability to control your bladder or bowel movements
  • Spasms or exaggerated reflexes
  • Trouble breathing or coughing
  • Weakness in part of your body
  • A burning pain caused by nerve damage along the spinal cord

The Center for Spinal Cord Injury at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute has the latest treatment options and dedicated teams of care providers.

Testing for Spinal Cord Injury

A spine specialist will perform extensive spinal cord testing to determine the location of your injury and whether it is complete or incomplete. You will have a motor skills exam to evaluate the strength of the muscles in your arms and legs. You’ll have a sensory exam to test your response to a light touch and a pinprick at certain spots that correspond with different levels along your spinal cord.

Your doctor will also need to test the anal sphincter muscle. If you have motor and sensory functions with this part of the test, your injury is considered incomplete. That means your brain can still receive nerve signals from the end of the spinal cord. If you cannot contract the anal muscle or feel sensation around the anus, the injury is classified as complete.

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Rehabilitation for Spinal Cord Injuries

After initial treatment in the hospital, you will need to continue rehabilitation for your spinal cord injury. The goal is to restore as much function as possible to your body and learn to perform essential daily functions.

Any rehabilitation program is tailored to your unique needs and injury. You’ll learn skills that fit within your daily life and abilities.

Spinal cord injury rehabilitation also teaches you to use assistive devices, including a wheelchair. Recovery is a slow process and can take months. It’s important to be patient throughout each step. Support groups can help you get through the most difficult times.

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The UPMC Rehabilitation Institute

As part of the largest rehabilitation network in western Pennsylvania, the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute offers specialized inpatient and transitional care for a variety of conditions. Read More