Classifications of a Spinal Cord Injury

By  //  August 6, 2020

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Sustaining injuries to the spinal cord can drastically affect a person’s day-to-day life. However, not all spine injuries are the same. There are multiple classifications to spinal cord injuries (SCIs) that vary depending on the degree of severity.

Sustaining injuries to the spinal cord can drastically affect a person’s day-to-day life. However, not all spine injuries are the same. There are multiple classifications to spinal cord injuries (SCIs) that vary depending on the degree of severity.

To understand the classifications, it is key to know the importance of the spinal cord and why SCIs can be so devastating.

Defining Spinal Cord Injuries

An SCI is defined as damage to any part of a person’s spine or its nerve endings that typically results in permanent impairment. Harm to one’s spinal cord can cause severe pain, suffering, loss of function or feeling, immobility, and even paralysis. 

“The spinal cord does not have to be fully severed in order for a person to be impacted by the damage,” explains Attorney Mac Hester of  Mac Hester Law. “In most spinal cord injury cases, the person’s spinal cord is still intact yet the damage that it sustained resulted in varying forms of impairment.” 

Understanding the Spinal Cord 

The brain and the spinal cord together constitute the body’s central nervous system. The spinal cord acts as the pathway for communication between the brain and the rest of the body, as it runs approximately 18 inches long from the base of the head, down the back, and ends at the waist. 

The nerves that move through the spine are responsible for transmitting messages back and forth from the brain to various nerves located throughout the spinal tract. Therefore, if the spinal cord is damaged, the nerves carrying messages to initiate movement or feelings cannot be received or recognized. 

Understanding the Vertebrae

Surrounding the spinal cord are vertebrae, which are a series of small bones that ultimately form the backbone. These vertebrae are named based on their location and are divided into five different sections.

The vertebrae in the neck are the cervical vertebrae, and, starting from the top, the vertebrae are named C-1 and the rest follow numerically until C-8.

The next set of vertebrae in the back are the thoracic vertebrae, labeled T-1 through T-12. The vertebrae in the pelvis follow, known as the lumbar vertebrae, and called L-1 through L-5.  Lastly, the vertebrae below the pelvis and until the end of the spinal column are the sacral vertebrae, labeled S-1 through S-5, with the spinal column concluding at the coccygeal.

Classifying Spinal Cord Injuries

Typically, the higher in the spinal column the injury occurs, the more severe the injury is considered to be. Therefore, injuries sustained to the cervical region are thought to be the most critical. These injuries often result in a paralysis condition called quadriplegia which results in a loss of function and sensation from the neck down.

Injuries to the other four vertebral sections result in varying degrees of paraplegia, likely with a loss of function and sensation below the chest or hips, depending on the location and degree of the injury. Nearly 40% of spinal cord injuries result in some form of paraplegia.

Complete Versus Incomplete Injuries

Spinal cord injuries can be further divided into complete or incomplete, based upon the degree of impairment. An SCI is classified as complete when a person loses nearly all function and sensation below the level of impact, with both sides of the body equally affected. 

In contrast, a spinal cord injury is classified as incomplete when a person has some varying level of function or sensation below the primary level of injury.

A person who has an incomplete injury may be able to feel parts of the body they cannot voluntarily move or have more function on one side of their body than the other. As medicine techniques regarding SCIs become more advanced, incomplete injuries are becoming more common than complete injuries. 

Spinal Cord Injuries by the Numbers

There are a few leading causes of spinal cord injuries, with the most common being from automobile accidents. It is estimated that 40% of all SCIs result from vehicle 

collisions as a result of whiplash that is experienced during the crash. At 32%, slip and falls closely follow as the second leading cause of spinal cord injuries. Other leading causes of injuries to the spinal cord are due to violence, sports, and surgical errors.

The impact that a spinal cord injury has on a person greatly depends on its classification level and location of injury. Currently, there are nearly 291,000 Americans living with some form of SCI, and this number only grows, with an estimated 17,730 new spinal cord injuries occurring each year.

However, regardless of the classification of spinal cord injury, a lawyer could help you get the compensation you deserve to recover to maximum medical improvement.