Spinal cord injuries affect between four and five million Americans per year, and about 400,000 people are living with the effects of spinal cord injury right now. While spinal cord injuries are more prevalent among males between the ages of 16 and 30, when all is said and done spinal cord injuries affect people from all walks of life, of all ages. Women, children, and the elderly—in addition to young men—are affected by spinal cord injury.
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.