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Spinal Cord Injury 101: Spinal Cord Injury Levels and What They Mean

According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, there are an estimated 300,000 Americans living with a spinal cord injury, with approximately 17,730 new injuries occurring every year. While every spinal cord injury is different, knowing your level of injury and classification of spinal cord injury can help determine treatment options and help you adjust to life living with an SCI.

What is a Spinal Cord Injury?

A spinal cord injury (SCI) is damage to part of the spinal cord or nerves that sends and receives signals from the brain to the rest of the body. In most spinal cord injury cases, the spinal cord remains intact, but the damage is extensive enough to result in loss of function.

Loss of Function may include:

  • Bladder and bowel
  • Breathing
  • Heart Rate
  • Metabolism
  • Muscle Movement
  • Reflexes
  • Sensation
  • Mobility

Common Causes of Spinal Cord Injuries

Spinal cord injuries generally occur due to a sudden, severe blow to the spine. Most SCIs result from motor vehicle accidents, falls, gunshot wounds/violence, sports injuries, or surgical complications, however, spinal cord injuries can also occur from disease or a degenerative disorder.

Levels of Injury Explained

The spine consists of vertebrae grouped into four different sections – cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral. Spinal cord levels of injury are named according to the corresponding vertebrae. Injuries sustained higher on the spine will be more severe and result in a higher loss of function.

Cervical Nerves

The cervical nerves play a critical role in supporting the head and allowing head and neck movement. Containing seven vertebrae from C1 – C7, spinal cord injuries to these vertebrae will result in tetraplegia/quadriplegia.

Thoracic Nerves

The thoracic nerves run from the shoulder level to the lower abdomen and include twelve vertebrae from T1 – T12. Spinal cord injuries to the thoracic nerve typically result in paraplegia, paralysis of the legs and lower body.

Lumbar Nerves

The lumbar nerves have five vertebrae, L1-L5, that are responsible for supporting the upper body’s weight and facilitating torso and leg movement. Injuries sustained to the lumbar area generally result in some loss of mobility and sensation in the hips and legs. Lumbar injuries commonly occur due to car accidents, falls, and violence.

Sacral Nerves

While the spinal cord ends at the lumbar nerves, there are sacral nerves between the lumbar nerves and the tailbone. The sacral nerves, S1 – S5, control pelvic organs such as the bladder, bowel, and sex organs. The prognosis for sacral injuries is more favorable than those sustained higher on the spinal cord, with most individuals being able to walk.

Classifications of Spinal Cord Injuries

There are two classifications of spinal cord injuries, complete and incomplete, which refers to the levels of sensation and movement that a person may or may not have after suffering an SCI.

Complete Spinal Cord Injury 

A complete spinal cord injury causes permanent damage to the spinal cord and eliminates the brain’s ability to send signals below the point of injury. If a person suffers a complete SCI, they lose all sensation and ability to move below the point of injury. According to the American Association of Neurology Surgeons, nearly 50% of all spinal cord injuries are complete. Paraplegia or tetraplegia are results of a complete spinal cord injury.

Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury 

An incomplete spinal cord injury means there is partial damage to the spinal cord. After suffering an incomplete SCI, an individual may or may not have sensation and movement below the point of injury depending on the area of the spine that was injured and the severity of the injury.

ASIA Impairment Scale

The American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) established a grading system for spinal cord injuries called the ASIA Impairment Scale. The grading system uses letters A through E to describe the severity of spinal cord injuries and indicates how much sensation a person feels after light touch.

  • Grade A: Complete spinal cord injury. No sensation or motor function below the point of injury.
  • Grade B: Incomplete sensory function with complete loss of motor function below the point of injury.
  • Grade C: Incomplete motor function with some movement, but fewer than half of the muscle groups can lift against gravity with a full range of motion.
  • Grade D: Incomplete motor function with more than half of the muscle groups able to lift against gravity.
  • Grade E: Normal sensation and motor function.

Achieving Independence After SCI with MTG Catheters

Although there is no cure for spinal cord injuries, the outlook for those affected by SCIs has improved dramatically over the years. At MTG, we are devoted to improving the quality of life of individuals who have suffered spinal cord injuries/diseases. If you are searching for effortless, worry-free self-catheterization options that fit your lifestyle, we welcome you to try our MTG no-touch closed system catheters free of charge.