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Thoracic Spine Injury: What to Expect and How to Cope

xray of thoracic spine injury

Wondering what to expect after a thoracic spine injury?

This article will go over what functions are affected at each level of injury, how to recover, and the best ways to cope.

What is Thoracic Spine Injury?

Thoracic spine injury occurs when you injure one of the 12 vertebrae that make up the area between your upper and mid-lower back. The vertebrae are labeled T1-T12. 

Following each vertebra is its corresponding spinal cord segment. When vertebrae compress the spinal cord, individuals can experience paralysis and loss of sensation in their trunk and lower body (paraplegia). 

Depending on the severity of the injury, the amount of control and sensations spared will vary.

Some people will only be partially paralyzed and struggle to coordinate their leg movements while others will be completely paralyzed and unable to move their legs at all. But even those who appear to be completely paralyzed often show some signs of recovery. 

Now that you understand where the thoracic spinal cord is, let’s go over what functions are affected at each level of injury. 

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Functions Affected by Thoracic Spine Injury

The thoracic spinal cord innervates the muscles and skin that make up the inner regions of your arms as well as your chest and trunk.

The higher the level of your spinal cord injury, the more functions will be affected. This occurs because brain signals will not be able to get past the injury site.

For example, a T1 spinal cord injury will affect control and sensation not only at the T1 level, but also all levels below. However, depending on the severity of injury, some functions may still be able to receive messages from the brain.

As you can see in the diagram below, the areas of skin innervated by the thoracic region are very closely aligned and will result in similar effects. Therefore, we’ll describe the thoracic levels of injury in 2 general sections:

diagram of functions affected by thoracic spine injury

Photo Credit: Ralf Stephan

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

T1-T5 thoracic spine injuries primarily affect the muscles in the upper chest, mid-back, and a little bit of the inner arms.

A T1 spinal cord injury affects sensation in your inner forearm and the ability to spread your fingers apart from each other.

T2 spinal cord injury affects sensation around the armpits and upper chest.

T3, T4, and T5 spinal cord injuries affect sensation at the upper chest and back.

Individuals with T3 spinal cord injuries and below will have normal use of their arm, hand, neck, head and breathing functions

However, higher-level thoracic injury patients may experience difficulties sitting upright due to lack of core control. In such cases, individuals may need to wear a back brace to help support their trunks.

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

T6-T12 spinal cord injuries affect the chest, trunk, and abdominal muscles.

Because mid to lower level thoracic spine injuries don’t affect the upper limbs, they generally allow a fair amount of independence.

Patients with lower thoracic spinal cord injuries should have stable trunk control and be able to sit upright without much difficulty.

Additionally, T6-T12 SCI patients should be able to perform transfers in and out of wheelchairs on their own.

Life After Thoracic Spine Injury

Despite having lower body paralysis, many thoracic spinal cord injury patients live very normal lives.

They learn to adapt and make the best out of their situations.

In the following sections, we’ll go over management interventions that can help you recover and cope after a thoracic spine injury.

Rehabilitation Therapy

man with thoracic spinal cord injury at physical therapy

©iStock.com/kzenon

Rehabilitation therapies can help you recover physically and mentally.

The most common rehabilitation therapies for spinal cord injury patients are physical therapy, occupational therapy, and psychotherapy.

Physical and occupational therapy both focus on improving functional mobility, but through different approaches.

Physical therapy uses targeted exercises while occupational therapy practices activities of daily living like getting dressed and performing transfers.   

Psychotherapy can help patients better manage the psychological effects of thoracic spine injury.

Adaptive Tools

Adaptive tools can be extremely helpful for promoting independence after thoracic spinal cord injury.

For example, setting up ramps or support bars throughout the house can make it much easier to get around.

If you have a weak core, a reacher can help you pick items up without straining or falling over.

Spinal Cord Injury Support Groups

Joining a spinal cord injury support group is another great way to cope after spinal cord injury.

There, you’ll be surrounded by other people who understand what you’re going through.

You can share experiences and learn about excellent resources to help you get through challenging times.

Recreation

man with thoracic spinal cord injury playing basketball

©iStock.com/nautiluz56

After a thoracic spinal cord injury, you may feel discouraged from participating in your favorite activities. However, you’ll soon discover that as long as you have an open mind and are willing to adjust, you can still partake in many activities!

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.

This is also a great opportunity to explore new hobbies. Not into sports? Consider cooking, pottery, painting, or photography!

Can You Fully Recover from a Thoracic Spine Injury?

Recovery from a thoracic spinal cord injury depends on many different factors.

Some factors (like the level and severity of your injury) are uncontrollable, but there are many things you can control including:

  • Training intensity
  • Diet
  • Mindset

Spinal cord injury recovery is all about promoting neuroplasticity through massed practice. Neuroplasticity is the spinal cord’s ability to rewire itself so that functions affected by damage to the spinal cord can be relearned.

Unfortunately, damage to the spinal cord cannot heal itself. However, undamaged areas can essentially pick up the slack and make adaptive neurological changes.

The best way to promote neuroplasticity is to continuously repeat weakened movements. This is why training intensity plays such a significant role in recovery outlook. The more repetitions you perform, the more you’re stimulating your spinal cord’s ability to rewire itself.

It’s also important to keep in mind that neuroplasticity is limited. Therefore, the more spared neural pathways you have at your level of injury, the better your recovery outlook.

Regardless, as long as you have some spared neural pathways at your level of injury, functional improvement is possible.

Understanding Thoracic Spinal Cord Injury: Key Points

Thoracic spinal cord injuries directly affect movement and sensation in your inner arms and trunk.

However, they will also affect your lower limb functions because messages from the brain will not be able to get past the injury site.

SCI patients with a T3 level of injury or below will have completely normal arm functions. Those with T1 or T2 injuries will have the majority of their arm functions, but may slightly struggle with tasks that require fine motor skills.

Generally, thoracic spine injury patients are capable of living very independent and fulfilling lives through rehabilitation therapy, a positive mindset, and a willingness to adapt.

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

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