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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Classification of Spinal Cord Injuries - Topic Overview

Spinal cord injuries (SCIs) can be classified based on function (how much feeling and movement you have) or on where the damage occurred. When a nerve in the spinal cord is injured, the nerve location and number are often used to describe how much damage there is. For example, a C7 injury is associated with the seventh cervical nerve of the neck and its effect on feeling and movement. Saying you are a C7 communicates that you can feed yourself and partially dress yourself but may need help bathing, and so on. C7 is known as the functional level of injury. These classifications are often used by people who have SCIs to describe themselves.

The spinal cord camera.gif is surrounded by protective rings of bone called vertebrae. The vertebrae and spinal nerves are organized into segments camera.gif, starting at the top of the spinal cord. Within each segment, the vertebrae and nerves are numbered. The segments are as follows:

  • Cervical. The neck area contains 7 cervical vertebrae (C1 through C7) and 8 cervical nerves (C1 through C8). Cervical SCIs usually cause loss of function in the chest, arms, and legs. Cervical injuries can also affect breathing and bowel and bladder control.
  • Thoracic. The chest area contains 12 thoracic vertebrae (T1 through T12) and 12 thoracic nerves (T1 through T12). The first thoracic vertebra, T1, is the vertebra where the top rib attaches to the spine. Thoracic SCIs usually affect the chest and the legs. Injuries to the upper thoracic area can affect breathing. Thoracic injuries can also affect bowel and bladder control.
  • Lumbar. The lumbar area (between the chest area and the pelvis) contains 5 lumbar vertebrae (L1 through L5) and 5 lumbar nerves (L1 through L5). Lumbar SCIs usually affect the hips and legs. Lumbar injuries can also affect bowel and bladder control.
  • Sacral. The sacral area (from the pelvis to the end of the spine) contains 5 sacral vertebrae (S1 through S5) and 5 sacral nerves (S1 through S5). Sacral SCIs also usually affect the hips and legs. Injuries to the upper sacral area can also affect bowel and bladder control.
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