The spinal cord is a slim cylindrical cord consisting of millions of nerve fibres, surrounded by a protective liquid called cerebrospinal fluid, which protects it from damage.
Along with the brain, the spinal cord makes up the central nervous system (CNS).
The sets of nerves within the spinal cord control distinct bodily functions and can be split into the four regions within the spinal column:
- Cervical – allowing us to breathe and feel movement in the head, neck, shoulders, arms and hands
- Thoracic – connects and controls our muscles in the back, chest and upper abdomen
- Lumbar – controls our lower back, thighs and lower legs
- Sacral – controls the buttocks, bladder, bowel, sexual function and parts of the legs and feet.
When an injury occurs to the spinal cord, the severity will depend on which section of the spine is injured.
Below, we explore the difference between these four regions and explain what ‘complete’ spinal cord injuries and ‘incomplete’ spinal cord injuries are.
Common causes of spinal cord injury
Spinal cord injuries are often the result of falls or road traffic collisions. The impact caused by these accidents can lead to traumatic spinal cord injury.
Injuries to the spinal cord can also be caused by medical negligence. For example, surgical errors can damage the spinal cord, while failure to provide proper treatment in time can lead to conditions like cauda equina syndrome.
Cervical Spinal Injuries
The cervical part of the spine is located in the neck area and supports the full weight of the skull.
Injuries to this section of the spinal column are typically the most severe type of injury. This is because this section is closest to the brain, so cervical spine injuries can often result in limited or absent feeling below the shoulders or neck, known as tetraplegia or quadriplegia.
In some cases, cervical spinal cord injuries can be fatal.
Thoracic Spinal Injuries
In contrast with the cervical part of the spinal cord, the thoracic region has very limited movement. It does, however, play a crucial role in protecting the internal organs inside the ribcage and helps keep the body upright.
If the thoracic section of the spine is injured, it can result in a loss of feeling in the abdominal, lower back and leg muscles. This is known as paraplegia. While people with paraplegic injuries usually have full use of their arms and upper body, they are unable to walk and require a wheelchair to get around.
Lumbar Spinal Injuries
This section of the spine carries most of the body’s weight and has greater range of motion than the thoracic region. When this section of the spine is injured, it can also result in paraplegia.
Sacral Spinal Injuries
The sacrum’s purpose is to connect the spine to the hip bones. There is no spinal cord in the sacrum, but damage to this region is similar to spinal cord damage. Sacral injuries often result in some loss of function in the hips and/or legs, however most people who suffer a sacral spinal injury are able to walk.
Complete spinal cord injuries
A complete spinal cord injury follows significant trauma and causes permanent damage. It will result in complete loss of movement and feeling below the level of injury. It means the brain and spinal cord are not cooperating due to the spine being crushed or completely compromised.
Incomplete spinal cord injuries
Spinal cord injuries that are ‘incomplete’ often allow some voluntary movement and sensation within the limbs below the spinal cord injury level, meaning some messages are getting through to the brain.
Examples of these injuries are:
- Anterior cord syndrome – the nerves at the front of the spinal cord are damaged, resulting in the person affected having total or reduced ability to feel pain, temperature and touch sensations below the level of injury
- Central cord syndrome – the centre of the spinal cord is damaged, often leading to reduced function in the arms, but continued feeling in the legs
- Posterior cord syndrome – the back of the spinal cord is damaged and the patient may experience difficulty controlling and coordinating limb movement
- Brown-Sequard syndrome – one side of the spinal cord is damaged, resulting in paralysis in the injured side of the body.
As outlined above, the severity of a spinal cord injury can depend on the injury site. Taking this into account, if you’ve suffered injuries to the spinal cord, you could experience various symptoms, such as:
- Dysfunction of the bowel and bladder
- Inability to breathe independently
- Inability to regulate blood pressure effectively
- Reduced control of body temperature
- Affected sexual function.
Our expert solicitors can help you get the rehabilitation you need and work with experts to make the adaptations required to maximise your quality of life.
If you, or a loved one, has suffered damage to the spinal cord, you should seek medical advice as soon as possible and contact our experts in serious injury claims for legal advice.