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Types of Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury: Understanding the Differences

4 types of incomplete spinal cord injury

Not all incomplete spinal cord injuries are the same. In fact, there are 4 main types of incomplete spinal cord injuries that result in different forms of sensorimotor loss.

This article will go over the distinctions between types of incomplete spinal cord injuries so that you know what to expect and how to recover.

Let’s get started!

Types of Incomplete Spinal Cord Injuries

An incomplete spinal cord injury is when the spinal cord is only partially damaged, meaning that some connections between your brain and body below your level of injury exist.

The extent of sensorimotor loss after incomplete spinal cord injury will depend on the location of the damage.

1. Anterior Cord Syndrome      

Anterior cord syndrome is when the front two-thirds of the spinal cord is damaged.

This results in the loss of motor function below your level of injury.

Anterior cord syndrome is often caused by damage at the anterior spinal artery, which blocks blood flow at that level of injury.

It can also be caused by flexion injury where the spinal column gets dislocated forward, and the bottom part of the spine compresses the front of the spinal cord.

Sensory functions having to do with pain and temperature are also commonly affected because the spinothalamic tracts get damaged.

2. Central Cord Syndrome

Central cord syndrome is the most common type of incomplete spinal cord injury, making up about 15-25% of all incomplete SCIs.

It occurs when there’s damage to the middle region of the spinal cord and is most often caused by hyperextension of the neck.

For example, when you get into a car accident, the impact can cause your neck to thrust forward.

Central cord syndrome is characterized by greater motor deficits in the arms than in the legs. This is because the motor pathways for the arms are more centrally located more than the motor pathways for the legs, which are located more laterally (to the sides).

3. Posterior Cord Syndrome

Posterior cord syndrome occurs when there’s damage at the back of the spinal cord.

This type of incomplete spinal cord injury is very rare and makes up only about 1% of all SCIs.

Posterior cord syndrome results in loss of proprioception (your sense of where your body is and how it moves), vibration sense, and deep touch below your level of injury.

Motor functions, pain, temperature, and light touch sensations should be preserved.

4. Brown-Séquard Syndrome

Brown-Séquard syndrome is when one side of the spinal cord gets damaged.

The spinal cord is nearly identical on both sides. Each hemisphere just affects different sides of the body.

With Brown-Séquard syndrome, patients will experience ipsilateral (same side) loss of motor function, proprioception, and vibration.

Because the spinothalamic tract crosses the midline, loss of pain and temperature will be experienced on the contralateral (opposite) side.

Brown-Séquard syndrome is a rare type of incomplete spinal cord injury and comprises only about 2-4% of all SCIs.

Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury Recovery

recovery outlook for different types of incomplete spinal cord injury

©iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

Regardless of what type of incomplete spinal cord injury you have, the good news is that there’s always hope for recovery.

Unlike a complete spinal cord injury, an incomplete spinal cord injury means that some neural pathways are spared, and that healthy, undamaged connections between the brain and body exist.

Neuroplasticity is the central nervous system’s (the brain and spinal cord) ability to rewire itself.

Through processes of neuroplasticity like synaptic reorganization and axonal sprouting, functions affected by spinal cord injury can be recovered.

After an incomplete spinal cord injury, you have to reteach your body how to move again through specific and intensive repetition.

The more you practice moving, the more comfortable and natural movements become.

All Incomplete Spinal Cord Injuries are Different

different types of incomplete sci

Even amongst the same type of incomplete spinal cord injury, all spinal cord injuries are different.

Spinal cord injury recovery outlook will vary based on many factors including:

  • level of injury
  • location of injury
  • severity of injury
  • pre-existing health conditions
  • commitment to rehabilitation (intensity, motivation, task-specific training, frequency)
  • secondary complications

Every spinal cord injury journey is unique and requires a personalized approach.

Luckily for incomplete spinal cord injury survivors, recovery is possible through neuroplasticity.

Featured image: ©iStock.com/vadimguzhva

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