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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.

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 occurs when the front two-thirds of the spinal cord is damaged and often results in the loss of motor function below your level of injury.

Anterior cord syndrome is frequently caused by damage at the anterior spinal artery, which blocks blood flow at that level of injury. On the other hand, it can also occur when the spinal column is dislocated forward. In these scenarios, the front part of the spinal cord is compressed by the bottom part of the spine, resulting in an anterior cord syndrome.

Sensory functions that transmit information regarding pain and temperature are commonly affected due to damage in the spinothalamic tracts.

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 from neck hyperextension.

A frequently-seen cause of central cord syndrome is severe whiplash during a car accident, especially when the impact of the crash causes the neck to thrust forward.

Central cord syndrome is characterized by more weakness in the arms than the legs. This is because nerves that control arm movements are more centrally located more than nerves that control the legs, which are found near the sides.

3. Posterior Cord Syndrome

Although rare, posterior cord syndrome occurs when there’s damage at the back of the spinal cord.

It causes a loss of proprioception (your sense of where your body is and how it moves), your sense of vibration, and ability to feel deep touch below your level of injury.

Strength and your ability to process pain, temperature, and light touch sensations are usually not affected.

4. Brown-Séquard Syndrome

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

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

Patients will experience a loss of movement on the same side of the lesion, as well as decreased proprioception and vibration sense. Because the spinothalamic tracts cross at the middle of the spinal cord, pain and temperature will be affected on the other side of the injury.

Brown-Séquard syndrome is another 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

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.

image credits: ©iStock.com/vadimguzhva//KatarzynaBialasiewicz

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