Classification of Spinal Cord Injuries
Spinal cord injuries (SCIs) can be classified based on function (how much feeling and movement you have) or on 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 communicates 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 spinal cord is surrounded by protective rings of bone called vertebrae. The vertebrae and spinal nerves are organized into segments, starting at the top of the spinal cord. Within each segment, the vertebrae and nerves are numbered. The segments are as follows:
The higher the damage occurs on the spinal cord, 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. This means 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.
For example, in an injury to the spinal nerves in the neck area (C1 through C8), messages are stopped in the neck area. This usually results in at least some paralysis of the chest, arms, and legs (tetraplegia, also known as quadriplegia). In an L3 injury, messages are stopped at the lower back. This results in at least some paralysis of the legs and hips (paraplegia).
SCIs are also described as complete and incomplete, and an incomplete injury is further classified into four subsections. The American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) classifies SCIs as follows:
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