Living With a Spinal Cord Injury - What Happens
Classifying a spinal cord injury continued...
The vertebrae and spinal nerves are
segments , 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
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 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
- 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
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
- In an incomplete SCI, you have varying
amounts of movement and feeling of the areas of your body controlled by the
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