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Thoracic Spine Injury: What to Expect and How to Cope

thoracic spinal cord injury

Thoracic spine injury occurs when you injure one of the 12 vertebrae that make up the thoracic region.

The thoracic region is the second region of the spinal cord, following the cervical region.

These 12 vertebrae make up your upper to middle back and are labeled T1-T12. Following each vertebra is a corresponding nerve that affects various functions of your body.

Injury to the thoracic region will affect the muscles that make up your chest and trunk.

Thoracic Spine Injury and Paraplegia

Injuries at or below the thoracic level will result in paraplegia, which is paralysis in the lower part of your body. Thoracic spinal cord injuries could even lead to loss of bowel, bladder, and sexual functions.

Spinal cord injuries prevent brain signals from traveling past the site of injury. This results in paralysis not only to the injury site, but also everywhere below.

Depending on the severity of injury, the amount of preserved voluntary movement and sensations will vary.

If the injury site is on the upper thoracic vertebrae, you can expect to experience some form of paralysis from the chest down.

In contrast, if the injury occurs on the lower thoracic regions, you may only have paralysis from the waist down.

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Adjusting to Life With Paraplegia

Many thoracic spine injury patients live very normal lives, even with paraplegia. They learn to adapt and make the best out of their situations with the help of special tools or adjustments.

For example, setting up ramps or support bars around the house can help individuals with paraplegia get around easier and help them establish a sense of independence.

If you have a weak core, a gripper/grabber/reacher can help you pick items up without having to strain or fall over.

Tons of sports are now adapted for individuals with paraplegia including basketball, rugby, and bowling.

We also highly recommend getting into a pool to practice standing or walking. The buoyancy will take away the pressure of your weight so that you can focus on your movements.

Thoracic Spine Injury Causes

common causes of spinal cord injury

Causes of thoracic spine injury are pretty much the same as any other type of spinal cord injury.

The main causes of thoracic spine injury are:

  • car accidents
  • violence
  • falls
  • contact sports

The thoracic spinal cord is pretty stable due to the extra protection by the ribcage. This makes it more difficult to injure the thoracic region unless hit directly or with enough force.

However, this region of the spine does take up the most surface area, so it is more likely to get hit.

Thoracic Spine Injury Levels

As you can see from the diagram on the right, the nerves of the thoracic spinal cord mainly affect the areas around the torso and are very closely aligned. We’ve split up the thoracic levels of injury into 2 general sections:

Dermatomes for cervical spine injury, thoracic spine injury, lumbar spine injury, and sacral spine injury
Photo Credit: Ralf Stephan

T1, T2, T3, T4, T5 Spinal Cord Injury

Thoracic spine injury at level T1-T5 will mainly affect the muscles in the upper chest, mid-back, and a little bit of the inner arms.

Injuries to higher level spinal nerves will cause the most overall impact. Out of all thoracic spine injuries, a T1 injury will affect the greatest area while a T12 injury will impact the least.

Hand, arm, neck, and breathing ability are usually not affected by a thoracic spinal cord injury because those areas are typically related to cervical spine injuries.

However, higher level thoracic injury patients may have trouble staying upright and controlling their trunks due to a lack of core control. They may need to wear a back brace to keep their trunk straight while they work on building stability.

T6, T7, T8, T9, T10, T11, T12 Spinal Cord Injury

T6-12 levels of injury affect the chest, trunk, and abdominal muscles.

Patients with mid to lower thoracic level injuries should have normal control over their arms and should be able to control a good chunk of the trunk.

While those with cervical injuries will mostly rely on a power wheelchair to get around, those with thoracic spine injuries will likely use a manual wheelchair because they have full control over their arms.

T6-T12 injury patients may be able to independently:

  • transfer themselves in and out of a wheelchair, onto their beds or other surfaces.
  • push out bowel excretions
  • stand or even walk with the help of a brace or walker for short distances

The lower the level of your thoracic spine injury, the greater your chances of mobility are.

Every thoracic spinal cord injury will be different, so be alert for even the smallest feelings of sensation or movement and notify your physical therapist so he/she can help you develop those functions.

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