Wondering what happens after a C7 spinal cord injury?
A C7 spinal cord injury will result in quadriplegia, which is paralysis in the arms, trunk, and legs.
However, because the C7 segment is further down the cervical region of the spinal cord, the majority of your arm functions will work normally.
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 a different part of the body. They can be tested at their unique dermatomes and myotomes.
A dermatome is the area of skin where sensation will originate from. If you don’t feel sensation at a certain dermatome, it means that sensory information cannot reach the brain.
The C7 dermatome is tested with a pinprick at the middle finger.
Myotomes are the muscles innervated at each spinal cord level. Most muscles are innervated by more than one spinal root.
The general muscles involved at the C7 level 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
Depending on the severity of your spinal cord injury, you may or may not have motor control 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 anything at their trunk or lower body.
This will affect:
- Bladder and bowel movements. Inability to control these reflexes and muscle contractions can make you very prone to accidents. Using a catheter and medications will help better predict and control bowel and bladder movements.
- Bone and muscle mass. Paralysis will prevent you from moving and using your muscles and bones as much as you’d like. This will cause them to shrink and weaken.
- 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 spared neural connections.
They indicate that there are active connections between your brain, spinal cord, and muscles.
The Importance of Consistent Movement
Many spinal cord injury patients are guilty of not moving enough.
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 pumped back to the heart. Insufficient blood supplies can cause your major organ systems to start dysfunctioning.
Even if you can’t control your movements, having someone else move your body for you 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 breakdown until it eventually hits bone.
Pressure sores typically develop in bony areas like the elbows, tailbone, ankles, and knees. To prevent them from developing, be sure to shift positions every once in a while and inspect your skin regularly.
C7 Spinal Cord Injury Recovery
Recovery after a C7 spinal cord injury will typically consist of physical and occupational therapy.
Both therapies will assess your physical abilities and work towards improving your motor skills.
In physical therapy, you’ll work on improving your gross motor skills (think big movements) through exercise.
In occupational therapy, you’ll work more on developing your fine motor skills (small muscle functions) through activities of daily living like brushing your teeth and getting dressed.
Both the brain and spinal cord have neuroplasticity, which is the ability to adapt by rewiring 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’re essentially reteaching yourself how to move again by strengthening neural circuitries that survived the injury.
What Can I Do After C7 Spinal Cord Injury?
Focusing on what you can do rather than what you can’t will help keep you motivated throughout your recovery journey.
Motor control and feeling above your level of injury will not be affected.
Therefore, people with C7 spinal cord injuries should be able to:
- Feel full sensation at their heads, necks, clavicles, shoulders, outer arms, thumbs, index fingers, and middle fingers
- Fully control their heads, necks, and shoulders
- Move their elbows and wrists (with some weakness)
- Straighten out their fingers (but likely won’t be able to bend them)
- 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 on their own.
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 can eat, brush your teeth, and write on your own.
While adaptive tools can be extremly helpful, try to only use them when absolutely necessary.
If you find that your hand functions are improving, challenge yourself to perform tasks without adaptive tools. This will help develop your hand functions to their full potential. The more you practice a weak function, the stronger its neural pathways will become.
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.
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 will be normal, you’ll have some independence and won’t have to constantly rely on a caregiver.
The more you practice weak functions, the more rewiring 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!