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Effect of a Spinal Cord Injury on the Body

Effect of a Spinal Cord Injury on the Body

Spinal cord injuries (SCIs) can be classified based on function (how much feeling and movement you have) or where the damage occurred. When a nerve in the spinal cord is injured, the nerve location and number are often used to describe how much damage there is. For example, a C7 injury is associated with the seventh cervical nerve of the neck and its effect on feeling and movement. Saying you are a C7 means that you can feed yourself and partially dress yourself but may need help bathing, and so on. C7 is known as the functional level of injury. These classifications are often used by people with SCIs to describe themselves.

The higher on the spinal cord the damage occurs, the more of the body is affected. This is because the nerves in the area of a vertebra control body parts in that area . When the spinal cord is damaged, messages cannot "jump over" the damaged area, meaning that messages sent from the brain cannot make it to body parts below the damaged area, and vice versa. Thus, the body at and below the level of injury is affected.

The following list shows some projected functional outcomes 1 year after the injury. The list does not show everything a person with a spinal cord injury can and cannot do. For more information, talk to your doctor or spinal cord injury therapist.

  • In C1 through T1 injuries, you generally need help with bowel and bladder care.
  • In C1 to C4 injuries, you can do little on your own. Others must help you with feeding, grooming, dressing, bathing, and mobility, as well as bowel and bladder care. You may need help to breathe, such as from a ventilator.
  • In C5 injuries, you can use a wheelchair and feed yourself with adaptive equipment. As in C1 to C4 injuries, you need help with most other functions.
  • In C6 injuries, you can dress your upper body and feed yourself. With equipment, you can groom and bathe yourself.
  • In C7 injuries, you can perform most daily functions on your own or with assistance. This includes feeding, dressing grooming, mobility, and bathing.
  • In C8 to T1 injuries, you can do more of the above without any assistance.
  • In T2 through S5 injuries, grooming, feeding, dressing, bathing, and bowel and bladder care are independent. At these levels, standing and walking with assistive devices are possible.
By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Nancy Greenwald, MD - Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
Last Revised February 16, 2011

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