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C7 Spinal Cord Injury: What to Expect in the Aftermath & Recovery Process

medical illustration of a c7 spinal cord injury

Often, cervical spinal cord injuries are the most severe and can result in quadriplegia or paralysis of all four limbs. However, upper body function may be spared in a C7 spinal cord injury because this segment is further down the cervical region of the spinal cord. The lower the level of injury, the higher the chances of existing movement and sensation.

This article will discuss what occurs in the aftermath of a C7 spinal cord injury and how to boost the recovery process.

The Aftermath of a C7 Spinal Cord Injury

The cervical nerves of the spinal cord are often the most vulnerable to damage because they are closer to the brain. Survivors may experience different outcomes depending on the severity and level of injury. The level of injury refers to the lowest region of the spinal cord where sensation and movement exist.

Individuals with a C7 spinal cord injury in particular may have limited or absent sensation (feeling) or movement below the shoulders and/or neck. This can make it difficult to move or feel anything in the lower body, trunk, and sometimes even in the hands and fingers.

Spinal cord nerves innervate, or connect to, different parts of the body. Nerves contain dermatomes and myotomes that can be “tested” for function. Dermatomes are an area of the skin supplied by sensory neurons from a single spinal nerve.

When sensation is not felt at a certain dermatome, it can indicate that sensory information cannot reach the brain. A C7 dermatome can be tested with a pinprick at the middle finger. Dermatomes also innervate a group of muscles called the myotomes. The muscles innervated by the C7 spinal cord root include the triceps, wrist flexors, and finger extensors. These are essential for certain functions such as straightening the elbows and bending the wrists.

Generally speaking, the lower the level of injury, the higher the possibility of sensation and mobility existing in different areas of the body. Higher-level spinal cord injuries may require regular caregiver assistance. However, survivors with a C7 spinal cord injury often have upper body control and can perform some activities independently.

Studies have shown that individuals with a C7 spinal cord injury may have certain functions intact. This can include full sensation in the head, neck, clavicle, shoulders, outer arms, thumbs, and fingers. Other functions may include full control of the head, neck, shoulders, elbows, and wrists, as well as breathing, speaking, and chewing independently.

Because a C7 spinal cord injury may not necessarily affect upper body functions, survivors may also be able to use a manual wheelchair on their own. However, it’s important to be mindful when using a manual wheelchair and not overwork the arms and shoulders after an injury.

Why Movement Is Important After a C7 Spinal Cord Injury

illustration of a complete and incomplete spinal cord injury

The severity of a C7 spinal cord injury depends on whether the injury was complete or incomplete. A complete spinal cord injury means the spinal cord was fully severed, and there is no movement or sensation below the level of injury. In an incomplete spinal cord injury the spinal cord is only partially severed, with some spared neural pathways for movement and sensation remaining.

Neural pathways may become damaged or destroyed after a C7 spinal cord injury, making it difficult for the spinal cord to communicate with the brain and body. Fortunately, spared neural pathways can be strengthened and new ones created with the help of neuroplasticity, the nervous system’s ability to rewire itself. Neuroplasticity helps restore communication between the brain, spinal cord, and muscles to eventually improve function.

While a complete injury indicates no movement or sensation, individuals with incomplete injuries have higher chances of recovery through neuroplasticity. To activate neuroplasticity, the nervous system must be stimulated through high repetition of exercises, or massed practice. The more a function is exercised, the stronger its neural pathways will become.

Your therapist can provide you with the therapeutic exercises that are safe and suitable for you. This can include a variety of active exercises and passive range of motion exercises. Passive exercise involves using the assistance of your non-affected limbs or a therapist to help move your affected muscles through their full range of motion.

Performing passive exercises with the help of your therapist or trained caregiver is a great way to promote movement in the affected muscles and stimulate neuroplasticity. This is beneficial to help the nervous system heal, improve blood circulation in the body, and prevent your joints from stiffening.

Every spinal cord injury is different and the rehabilitation process may look different for everyone. Depending on the severity, some may encounter positive results more swiftly than others. To boost your motivation during recovery, it helps to focus on what you can do rather than what you cannot just yet. Over time, with consistent practice, you can increase the chances of recovery from a C7 spinal cord injury.

Movement is an essential part of recovery and it helps lower the risk of further injury or other complications of a spinal cord injury.

Potential Complications of a C7 Spinal Cord Injury

A C7 spinal cord injury can result in loss of movement and sensation, which can affect other functions in the body. The more severe an injury, the higher the risk of developing complications such as pressure sores.

Pressure sores typically develop in bony areas such as the elbows, sit bones, tailbone, hip bones, heels, ankles, and knees. Remaining in the same position for prolonged periods of time can cause excess pressure to build up. This can restrict blood flow and allow for skin to break down. If left untreated, this skin breakdown can penetrate into the bone.

To prevent pressure sores from developing, be sure to change positions frequently, such as every two hours when in bed, and every 30 minutes when sitting up in your wheelchair. It’s also important to inspect your skin daily. In the hospital, your doctor can provide proper care tips.

For example, immobility can slow down blood circulation throughout the body, decrease heart rate, and even interfere with your metabolism. This can cause blood to pool in the arms and legs, reducing blood supply returned to the heart. Insufficient blood supply can cause dysfunction in your major organs. To lower the risk of complications, it’s important to promote movement in the affected muscles.

Potential complications of a C7 spinal cord injury can include:

  • Bladder and bowel movements: Loss of sensation can result in the inability to control bladder and bowel reflexes and muscle contractions, making you prone to accidents. To prevent this from happening, a catheter may be necessary to remove urine. Suppositories, medications, and/or other techniques may also help control bowel movements.
  • Bone and muscle mass: Paralysis after a C7 spinal cord injury can make it difficult to move your limbs. Lack of mobility can cause you to use your muscles and bones less, which can result in muscle atrophy (shrinking of the muscles).
  • Autonomic nervous system functions: The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for the regulation of involuntary body functions such as temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion. These functions can be affected by loss of movement and sensation after a C7 spinal cord injury.

Survivors may also experience pain and/or spasticity (involuntary muscle contractions) below the level of injury. Although these symptoms may be challenging to overcome, they are positive signs of recovery from spinal cord injury because it indicates that there may be connections between your brain, spinal cord, and muscles remaining.

C7 Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Process

To maximize your chances of recovering from a C7 spinal cord injury it’s important to promote movement and establish a proper rehabilitation regimen. Rehabilitation can include a combination of physical and occupational therapy exercises. Both types of therapies focus on improving mobility after a spinal cord injury.

Physical therapy particularly focuses on improving your gross motor skills that involve large muscle groups such as the arms, legs, and torso. Occupational therapy focuses on improving your fine motor skills to help you maximize your independence and perform daily activities on your own. This can include activities such as brushing your teeth and getting dressed.

Therapists may also recommend using adaptive devices such as a universal cuff to help you eat, brush your teeth, and write independently. While adaptive tools can be helpful in completing daily tasks, it’s important to simultaneously practice therapeutic exercises. For instance, if you notice your hand function improving, challenge yourself to perform tasks without adaptive tools. This can help you achieve high repetition of exercises. 

Consistent practice of therapeutic exercises help stimulate the nervous system and activate neuroplasticity, which is essential for a C7 spinal cord injury recovery.

Understanding a C7 Spinal Cord Injury

Although a C7 spinal cord injury can impair movement and sensation below the level of injury, upper body functions are usually unaffected. The severity depends on whether the injury was complete or incomplete. The more neural pathways remaining after an injury, the higher the chances of stimulating neuroplasticity.

While a C7 spinal cord injury can make it challenging to perform daily activities, it’s important to find ways to stay motivated and achieve high repetition of therapeutic exercises. The more a skill is practiced, the more the nervous system will strengthen the neural pathways necessary for that function.

We hope this article helped you understand the effects of a C7 spinal cord injury, and how to boost the recovery process.

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