There are 2 types of spinal cord injury, 2 states of paralysis that result from spinal cord injury, 5 classifications on the ASIA impairment scale, and 33 levels of injury that all affect different areas of the body.
It can definitely get overwhelming, so we’ve put together this article to help explain all the various ways to differentiate spinal cord injury.
Types of Spinal Cord Injury
There are 2 types of spinal cord injury: complete and incomplete. They’re differentiated by how much feeling and control you have below the injury.
Complete Spinal Cord Injury
Complete spinal cord injury is when you do not have any sensory or motor function. This means you cannot control or feel areas of your body below the level of injury.
Complete injuries do take longer to recover from than incomplete spinal cord injuries due to the fact that no motor and sensory functions survived the injury.
It’s definitely possible for complete spinal cord injury patients to recover functions and transition to a state of incomplete spinal cord injury.
Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury
Incomplete spinal cord injury is when you have some sensory and/or motor function. This means that neural circuitry still exists between your brain and body.
When you touch something, sensory information travels through the spinal cord to the brain.
The brain will then process that information and send directions back down the spinal cord, telling your body how to react.
When the spinal cord is injured, the passageway in which the body and brain communicate becomes disrupted and a lot of those messages can’t get through.
With incomplete spinal cord injury, some of the neural connections still exist, which is why you can still feel or control certain parts of your body below the level of injury.
Luckily, most spinal cord injury patients experience incomplete spinal cord injury.
Quadriplegia vs Paraplegia
Depending on the location of your spinal cord injury, you will experience either paralysis in only your lower extremities or in both your upper and lower extremities.
The cervical region consists of the 7 vertebrae that make up your neck. This region is connected to peripheral nerves that connect to the upper extremities.
Quadriplegics will not only be unable to have full control of their upper body, but also their lower body.
This is because brain signals cannot travel past the site of injury, so everything below also gets affected.
The term tetraplegia is synonymous for quadriplegia and both terms are commonly used.
Many quadriplegics are unable to live independently and must rely on a caregiver to help them carry out everyday tasks due to inability to reach, grab, or even breathe.
The higher up the spine your injury is, the more dependent you’ll have to be on a caregiver.
Those with C1-C4 spinal cord injuries may not even be able to breathe and will need the aid of a ventilator.
Paraplegia is when only the lower extremities experience paralysis.
Basically, injury to any area below your neck will result in paraplegia.
Many paraplegics are still able to live mostly independently because they still have full control over their arms. They just have to learn to adjust.
Exercise is much easier for paraplegics than quadriplegics for the same reason. They can use their arms to passively move the legs on their own.
Using a resistance band can help paraplegics stretch their lower body.
ASIA Impairment Scale (AIS)
The ASIA impairment scale consists of 5 categories with AIS A being the most debilitating and AIS E marking a full recovery.
AIS A: This is the only category for complete spinal cord injury. It means you have 0 motor and 0 sensory function.
AIS B: AIS B is a category for incomplete spinal cord injury. It refers to when you have some sensory function, but still 0 motor function. You may experience sensations of tingling or numbness.
AIS C: AIS C is a category for incomplete spinal cord injury. This is when partial motor function is preserved. You’ll fall into AIS C when the majority of your muscles below the level of injury have a muscle grade below 3. A muscle grade below 3 accounts for full range of motion without the pressure of gravity.
AIS D: AIS D is a category for incomplete spinal cord injury. It’s similar to AIS C in that you have partially preserved motor function and sensation. The difference is that the majority of your muscles will have a muscle grade of 3 and up, which means that you have full range of motion against gravity.
AIS E: An AIS grade of A refers to a full recovery. You should have full control and sensations in all muscles below the site of injury.
Spinal Cord Injury Levels
Level of injury refers to where on the spinal cord the injury occurs.
The higher your level of injury, the more debilitating the results.
We went over this a little bit in the beginning, but here’s a more comprehensive overview.
The spine is separated into 5 regions:
Starting from the top, the cervical region connects to the bottom of the skull and makes up your neck. There are 7 cervical vertebrae and 8 cervical nerves. They control signals to the neck, diaphragm, shoulders, arms, and hands.
The thoracic region makes up your upper back and consists of 12 vertebrae. Thoracic spinal nerves control signals to the chest, back, and abdominal muscles.
The lumbar region makes up your lower back and consists of 5 vertebrae. Lumbar spinal nerves control signals to the lower abdominal muscles, back, some of the external genitalia, and legs.
The sacral region makes up your pelvis area and all 5 vertebrae fuse together to form a single bone called the sacrum. Sacral spinal nerves control signals to the legs, feet, and the rest of the genitalia.
Lastly, is the coccygeal region. It consists of 4 vertebrae that like the sacral vertebrae, all fuse together to form the coccyx. This is what we commonly refer to as the tailbone.
Types of Spinal Cord Injury: A Summary
Now that you’ve learned about all these different classifications of spinal cord injury, it probably makes more sense as to why every spinal cord injury is so different.
Whether it’s the location of the injury or the severity of impact, they all affect how much you experience paralysis.
We strongly suggest getting familiar with all these different ways to classify spinal cord injury so that you can better understand your current condition and know what to look forward to next in your recovery.