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Living With a Spinal Cord Injury - What Happens

Classifying a spinal cord injury continued...

The vertebrae and spinal nerves are organized into segments camera.gif, starting at the top of the spinal cord. Within each segment they are numbered.

People with SCIs often use a segment of the spine to talk about their functional level. (Your functional level is how much of your body you can move and feel.) For example, you might describe yourself as a "C7."

The nerves around a vertebra control specific parts of the body. Paralysis occurs in the areas of the body that are controlled by the nerves camera.gif associated with the damaged vertebrae and the nerves below the damaged vertebrae. The higher the injury on the spinal cord, the more paralysis there is.

  • Damage to the spinal nerves in the neck can cause paralysis of the chest, arms, and legs (tetraplegia, also known as quadriplegia).
  • Damage lower down on the spine (thoracic, lumbar, or sacral segments) can cause paralysis of the legs and lower body (paraplegia).
  • Breathing is only affected by injuries high on the spinal cord.
  • Bowel and bladder control can be affected no matter where the spinal cord is injured.

Damage to the spinal cord can be complete or incomplete.

  • In a complete SCI, you do not have feeling or voluntary movement of the areas of your body that are controlled by your lowest sacral nerves—S4 and S5. These nerves control feeling and movement of your anus and perineum.
  • In an incomplete SCI, you have varying amounts of movement and feeling of the areas of your body controlled by the sacral nerves.

Some recovery of feeling and movement may return after the injury—how much depends on the level of injury, the strength of your muscles, and whether the injury is complete or incomplete. Most recovery occurs within the first 6 months of the injury.

For the family and caregivers

After a traumatic SCI, your loved ones will often ask questions about the injury and what it means. Keep your answers short, simple, and honest. You cannot give a complete answer, because it's often hard to know how serious the injury is and how much you will recover. This typically is not known until swelling and bleeding are reduced and the doctors can find out where the spinal cord has been injured.

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