A spinal cord injury can be a life-altering experience. Patients who have damage to their spinal cords often end up losing the use of limbs, which can lead to a lifelong need for care and support. Spinal cord injuries vary in severity based on where on the spine the injury occurs. Typically, the closer to the neck, the more impact a victim will have from the injury. These are the five levels of spinal cord injuries and their potential impacts.
1. High Cervical Nerve Injuries
Injuries to the first four vertebrae, C1 through C4, often lead to the most disabling injury types of all spinal cord injuries. These injuries may cause paralysis of the limbs or trunk. These injuries can damage a person’s ability to speak, breathe or cough. An injured person is considered quadriplegic if paralyzed in all four limbs. An individual with a high cervical nerve injury will need assistance with all basic care needs.
2. Low Cervical Nerve Injuries
The low cervical vertebrae, C5 through C8, control the movement of the arms and hands. Typically, people with injuries to this part of the spine are still able to breathe and speak, but they may have a weakened ability. They will need assistance with personal care but may retain use of some limbs.
3. Upper Thoracic Nerve Injuries
Injuries to the top five thoracic vertebrae, T1 through T5, will impact the ability to use the abdominal, chest, and mid-back muscles. Most people with these injuries can use their hands and arms normally. However, they may be paraplegic and unable to use the trunk or legs.
4. Lower Thoracic Nerve Injuries
Like the upper thoracic vertebrae, injuries to the T6 through T12 thoracic vertebrae will affect the trunk and potentially the legs. Bowel and bladder control are often compromised, and the individual may need a wheelchair or braces to stand and walk. However, he or she will likely retain the ability to cough, breathe normally and use his or her arms.
5. Lumbar Nerve Injuries
The lumbar vertebrae control L1 through L5. Injuries to this area lead to loss of function in the hips and legs, and the individual may not be able to control their bowel or bladder. Sometimes individuals with these injuries can still walk, but they may have leg weakness and need a wheelchair to assist.
Sacral Nerve Injuries
The lowest nerves on the spinal cord are in the tailbone. The S1 through S5 nerves can affect the bowel and bladder and hips and legs. However, people with these injuries can usually walk, they just may experience pain or weakness.
Assessing the Severity of Spinal Cord Injuries
The severity of the injury is closely associated with the location of the injury. The affected vertebrae and nerves will impact how much quality of life an individual loses after an injury. This will also impact the cost of a spinal cord injury. The higher up on the spinal cord, the more impact the injury will be, and the greater loss of function the person is going to experience. This results in a greater need for support, therapy, and care.