Understanding The Levels Of Spinal Cord Injury

March 16, 2016 | 8:00 am | By Pants Up Easy

If you know anything about spinal cord injuries, it’s probably how dangerous they are. Few injuries can have such lasting and wide-ranging implications as a spinal cord problem. For instance, if you break your leg, that probably won’t affect much more than your leg. Your arm won’t suddenly start hurting as a result.

But with a spinal cord injury? Your back may not even be the most aggrieved part of your body. A spinal cord injury could very easily leave you numb in the extremities, or even worse, permanently paralyzed. It’s frighteningly common, which makes sense when you understand how the spinal cord works.

The brain and spinal cord together make up the central nervous system. The brain uses the spinal cord to communicate with the rest of the body – the spinal cord helps carry out the brain’s orders. When the spinal cord is injured, those orders can’t reach the intended body parts. Thus, paralysis ensues.

Not all spinal injuries are created equal

Like with most things, there are levels to spinal cord injuries, which correlate to the area of the spinal cord that is injured. For instance, the top level of the spinal cord (the Cervical nerves) are made up of eight different vertebrae, numbered C1-C8. Those are followed by the Thoracic vertebrae (T1-T12). The bottom two levels are the Lumbar nerves (L1-L5) and the Sacral nerves (S1-S6). Your body will respond differently depending on the area of the spinal cord that is hurt.

High-Cervical Nerves (C1-C4)

These are actually the worst vertebrae to injure, since they’re the closest to the brain. Anyone with a high cervical nerve injury will require 24-hour care and assistance with basic daily activities such as eating and dressing. The patient will experience paralysis in the legs, arms, hands and trunk.

Low-Cervical Nerves (C5-C8)

These people are a little better off than those with high-cervical injuries, but not by much. C5 injuries aren’t much different from C4 problems, but once you get to C6 and lower, it gets a bit better. Speaking and breathing should be unimpaired, and the person may be able to take care of daily tasks without help. They’ll also have some mobility of the arms, wrists or elbows, depending on the severity of their injury.

Upper Thoracic Nerves (T1-T6)

The next level still involves paralysis of the legs, but the arms are usually fine here. However, you may have problems with the chest, abdominal or mid-back muscles. And although these patients will most likely use a wheelchair, walking with braces is possible.

Lower Thoracic Nerves (T7-T12)

Very similar to the upper level of thoracic problems, except that trunk function is usually pretty close to normal. You should be able to control and balance your trunk from the seated position.

Lumbar Nerves (L1-L5)

Once we get this low in the spinal cord, our possible prognosis can be more optimistic. Although you’ll have trouble controlling your bowels, your upper body will be fine and your legs will have some strength. You may be able to walk with braces.

Sacral Nerves (S1-S5)

The Sacral nerves are practically all the way down to your pelvis, and the ramifications of this injury are more manageable. Aside from the bowel problems (which are part of all spinal cord injuries), you should be able to walk on your own – no wheelchair necessary.

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