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C7 Spinal Cord Injury: What to Expect on the Road to Recovery

c7 spinal cord injury

Wondering what to expect after a C7 spinal cord injury? A C7 spinal cord injury may result in quadriplegia, which describes paralysis in the arms, legs, and sometimes, the trunk.

However, because the C7 segment is further down the cervical region of the spinal cord, the majority of your arm functions may be spared.

This article will go over what functions are directly affected by C7 spinal cord injury and what you should expect regarding daily living and recovery.

Direct Outcomes of C7 Spinal Cord Injury

The nerve roots at each level of the spinal cord innervate different parts of the body. They can be tested at their unique dermatomes and myotomes.

A dermatome is an area of skin that is primarily innervated by a single spinal nerve root. It is the origin of sensations. So if you can’t feel sensation at a certain dermatome, it means that sensory information cannot reach the brain.

You can test the C7 dermatome with a pinprick at the middle finger.

Myotomes are the muscles innervated by a single nerve root. Most muscles are innervated by more than one spinal root.

The muscles innervated by the C7 spinal root include the triceps, wrist flexors, and finger extensors. These are essential for straightening your elbows and bending your wrists.

Difficulties You Might Experience After C7 Spinal Cord Injury

man with muscle atrophy after c7 sci

Depending on the severity of your spinal cord injury, you may lose motor control and/or sensation below your level of injury.

Spinal cord injuries can be complete or incomplete.

A complete injury means that the spinal cord is severed all the way through and connections between the brain and areas below the level of injury no longer exist.  Individuals with a complete C7 spinal cord injury will not be able to move or feel their trunk or lower body, and will also have some impairments in their hands/fingers.

This will affect:

  • Bladder and bowel movements. The inability to control these reflexes and muscle contractions can make you very prone to accidents. Using a catheter will be necessary to remove urine. Suppositories, medications, and/or other techniques for stool removal will help control bowel movements.
  • Bone and muscle mass. Paralysis will prevent you from moving in the same ways you did before, therefore causing you to use your muscles and bones less. This will cause them to atrophy.
  • Autonomic nervous system functions. Your autonomic nervous system is responsible for the regulation of involuntary body functions like temperature regulation, heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion.

In contrast, individuals with incomplete injuries will have some spared neural connections.

They will likely experience some pain and spasticity (involuntary muscle contractions) below their level of injury. While these symptoms may not sound ideal, they are good signs of recovery.

They indicate that there are still active connections between your brain, spinal cord, and muscles.

The Importance of Consistent Movement

Many spinal cord injury patients are unable to ambulate. Because of this limitation, it often becomes difficult for them to get enough movement for their body.

Paralysis after SCI can discourage many individuals from attempting to move; however, there are some major consequences of physical inactivity.

First, your metabolism, heart rate, and circulation will all slow down. This can cause blood to pool in the arms and legs, reducing the supply returned to the heart. Insufficient blood supplies can cause your major body tissues to start dysfunctioning.

Even if you can’t control your movements (active movement), having someone else move your body for you (passive movement) can be extremely effective.  Passive range of motion exercises will stimulate your muscles, improve circulation, and prevent your joints from stiffening.

Another consequence of physical inactivity is the development of pressure sores.  When you stay in one position for too long, too much pressure builds up. This can restrict blood flow and allow for skin to break down. If left untreated and very severe, this skin breakdown can deepen to the point of eventually hitting bone.

Pressure sores typically develop in bony areas like the elbows, sit bones, tailbone, hip bones, heels, ankles, and knees. To prevent them from developing, be sure to change positions every two hours when in bed, and every 30 minutes when sitting up in your wheelchair. It is also imperative that you inspect your skin daily – your therapists in the hospital should show you how to do this properly.

C7 Spinal Cord Injury Recovery

Recovering from a C7 spinal cord injury will require physical and occupational therapy.

Both therapies will assess your physical abilities and work towards improving your motor skills.

Physical therapy will improve your gross motor skills (think big movements) through different exercise modalities.

Occupational therapy will focus on improving your independence in activities of daily living like brushing your teeth and getting dressed, while also addressing your upper body strength and fine motor skills to improve hand function.

Both the brain and spinal cord exhibit neuroplasticity, which is the ability to adapt by reorganizing neural pathways. Repetitive movement stimulates neuroplasticity.  The more you perform a weak function, the more you’re activating that neural circuitry and the more familiar your brain becomes with the movement.

You must re-educate yourself on how to move again by strengthening neural circuitries that survived the injury.

What Can I Do After C7 Spinal Cord Injury?

doctor expaining rehabilitation to c7 spinal cord injury patient

Focusing on what you can do rather than what you can’t will help keep you motivated throughout your recovery phase.

Level of injury refers to the lowest segment of the spinal cord that is not affected, where sensation and motor functions are intact.

Therefore, people with C7 spinal cord injuries should be able to:

  • Have full sensation at their heads, necks, clavicles, shoulders, outer arms, thumbs, index fingers, and middle fingers
  • Fully control their heads, necks, shoulders, elbows, and wrists
  • Breathe, speak, and chew independently

Higher-level SCIs will often require 24/7 caregiver assistance. However, C7 spinal cord injury patients usually have enough upper limb control to perform some activities independently.

Use Adaptive Tools

Adaptive devices can help make up for limited finger control. They make it easier for you to practice everyday activities independently.

For example, you can attach items like utensils, toothbrushes, and pens to a universal cuff to help you eat, brush your teeth, and write independently.

While adaptive tools can be extremely helpful, try to use them only when absolutely necessary.

If you find that your hand functions are improving, challenge yourself to perform tasks without adaptive tools. This can help return your hand functions to their full potential. The more you stimulate a weak function, the stronger its neural pathways will become.

Mobility

With a C7 spinal cord injury, you should be able to start operating a manual wheelchair.

While a power wheelchair may be easier to use and get around with, it won’t help strengthen your arm muscles, and likely won’t be covered by insurance for someone with a C7 injury.

Strong arms are essential for individuals with lower-body paralysis, as they help compensate for limited leg function.

C7 Spinal Cord Injury

A C7 spinal cord injury can be overwhelming, but the key to success is to stay positive and focus on what you CAN do.

Because the majority of your upper body functions are unaffected, you’ll have some independence and won’t have to constantly rely on a caregiver.

The more you practice weak functions, the more reintegration will occur, and the stronger they’ll become.

Hopefully, this article helped you better understand what to expect after a C7 spinal cord injury. Good luck!

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