Types of Spinal Cord Injury

There are two types of spinal cord injuries. Complete spinal cord injuries refer to the types of injuries that result in complete loss of function below the level of the injury, while incomplete spinal cord injuries are those that result in some sensation and feeling below the point of injury. The level and degree of function in incomplete injuries is highly individual, and is dependent upon the way in which the spinal cord has been damaged.

Complete Spinal Cord Injuries

Complete spinal cord injuries result in complete paraplegia or complete tetraplegia.

Complete paraplegia is described as permanent loss of motor and nerve function at T1 level or below, resulting in loss of sensation and movement in the legs, bowel, bladder, and sexual region. Arms and hands retain normal function.

Some people with complete paraplegia have partial trunk movement, allowing them to stand or walk short distances with assistive equipment. In the majority of cases, complete paraplegics choose to get around via a self-propelled wheelchair.

Complete tetraplegia is characterized by the loss of hand and arm movement as well. Some tetraplegics require ventilator systems in order to breathe. Depending upon the location of the injury, some tetraplegics may have some arm and hand movement present.

Incomplete Spinal Cord Injuries

Incomplete spinal cord injuries are more common than complete injuries, and are characterized by some degree of sensation and movement below the point of injury. The extent of an incomplete injury is generally determined after spinal shock has subsided, approximately six or eight weeks post injury. Incomplete spinal injuries can result in some feeling but little or no movement, or in some movement but little or no feeling. Incomplete spinal injuries fall under five different classifications:

  • Anterior Cord Syndrome: Characterized by damage to the front of the spinal cord, resulting in impaired temperature, touch, and pain sensations below the point of injury. Some movement can later be recovered.
  • Central Cord Syndrome: Characterized by damage in the center of the spinal cord that results in loss of function in the arms but some leg movement. Some recovery is possible.
  • Posterior Cord Syndrome: Characterized by damage to the back of the spinal cord, resulting in good muscle power, pain, and temperature sensation, but poor coordination. 
  • Brown-Sequard Syndrome: Characterized by damage to one side of the spinal cord, resulting in impaired loss of movement but preserved sensation on one side of the body, and preserved movement and loss of sensation on the other side of the body.
  • Cauda Equina Lesion: Characterized by injury to the nerves located between the first and second lumbar region of the spine, resulting in partial or complete loss of sensation. In some cases, nerves regrow and function is recovered.

Spinal Contusions and Nerve Damage

Damage to nerve cells can create a loss of sensory and motor function in the spinal cord if that is where the injury occured. Spinal contusions are the most common type of spinal cord injury and may result in bruising, inflammation and bleeding near the spinal cord.  Patients with spinal contusions may endure debiilitation for a few days.  However, a person who suffers from this type of injury usually only experiences temporary effects and recovers quickly.