What Are the Levels of Spinal Cord Injury?

Having any spine injury is a scary thing. Many people think of paralysis or loss of movement from a spinal cord injury, but there’s a wide range of experiences based on the level of spinal cord injury you have sustained.

Anatomy of the Spine

The spinal cord is the communication highway for your body. It connects the base of the brain to the rest of your body’s nerves. The spinal cord is protected by a bony canal, your spine.

An injury to the spine that fractures the vertebrae or causes the ligaments holding those vertebrae together to fall out of alignment can bruise or crush the spinal cord. This damage disrupts the signals from your brain to parts of your body, causing numbness, weakness, loss of feeling in limbs, and other limitations.

Injuries fall into two categories: incomplete and complete. With an incomplete injury, you have some feeling and movement below the site of the injury. With a complete injury, you have no functioning below the level of the injury. Injuries occurring higher along the spinal cord cause more impairment.

Spinal injuries fall into two categories: incomplete and complete.

Classifying a Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord injury levels vary depending on where along the spine it happens. Your spinal nerves and bones are organized into segments:

  • Cervical: This is the neck area. You have seven vertebrae and eight nerves. These injuries are classified as C1 through C8. Injuries to this area often affect your ability to use your chest, arms, and legs. You may also have trouble with breathing and bowel and bladder control.
  • Thoracic: This is your chest area. These injuries are classified at T1 through T12. An injury in this region here usually affects the chest and legs. You may also have problems with bowel and bladder control.
  • Lumbar: This is your lower back. These injuries are classified as L1 through L5. These affect the legs and can affect bowel and bladder control.
  • Sacral: This area runs from your pelvis to the end of your spine. These injuries are classified as S1 through S5. These injuries usually affect the feet, as well as bowel and bladder control.

Abilities After Spinal Cord Injury

Abilities depend on whether the injury is complete or incomplete and which spinal area is affected. There are three main classifications:

  • Quadriplegia: This means you have lost movement in your arms and legs. Injuries that happen at the T1 level or in the cervical area often lead to quadriplegia. An injury between C1 and C4 can affect breathing and require a ventilator.
  • Paraplegia: This refers to loss of movement in the legs, usually because of an injury at the T1 level or lower.

Treatment for Spinal Cord Injury

Specialized spinal cord injury rehabilitation programs focus on restoring function when possible and adjusting to limitations. The spinal cord injury rehabilitation program will focus on relearning daily skills, such as bathing and dressing. You also learn to operate a wheelchair or assistive devices in rehabilitation.

Services provided in spinal cord injury rehabilitation are varied and may include:

The Center for Spinal Cord Injury at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute has the latest treatment options, and dedicated teams of care providers to follow you from initial inpatient treatment through rehabilitation. Everyone is working toward the goal of helping you regain function and as much independence as possible.