Cervical spinal cord injuries

Cervical Spinal Cord Injuries Explained

There are many factors that influence the prognosis for a patient following a spinal cord injury. These factors include where the damage to the spine has occurred and whether the injury is considered complete or incomplete.

An incomplete injury to the lumbar region, for example, may leave the individual with some sensation and movement below the waist. A complete injury to the same area can result in more challenging issues related to mobility and sensation being experienced by the patient.

In general, the higher up the spinal cord the injury occurs, the more debilitating it can be. Doctors and surgeons will talk of three main levels in respect of SCIs: cervical, thoracic and lumbar. Damage to the sacral area at the base of the spine can occur, but typically, injuries to this area of the spine have a much better outlook for the patient.

Here we take a look at cervical spinal cord injuries, how they are commonly caused and what treatment options are available.

Cervical Spinal Cord Injury levels  (C1-C8)

Anatomy of the Spine
Anatomy of the human Spine

The cervical area of the spine covers a number of vertebrae stretching from the neck down to the top of the chest area, from C1 at the top to C7 at the bottom.

There is also a C8 level, which isn’t actually a vertebrae at all but is a spinal nerve located in the area between the C7 vertebra and the first T1 (thoracic) vertebra.

C1-C2 Vertebrae and C3-C4 Vertebrae:

Damage the spinal cord within the top four vertebrae of the spine will generally result in more debilitating symptoms compared with injuries lower down. C1-C2 spinal cord injuries are typically considered as the most severe type of SCI. The individual is likely to have total paralysis in the arms, hands, thorax and legs.

Their ability to speak and breathe properly could be impaired and they will likely require a lot of help with their daily living, including get dressed and eating. In more severe cases, the individual will not be able to breathe without assistance.

C5 Vertebrae:

Damage to this area is still severe but less so than with C1-C4 injuries. The individual will be able to do things such as lift their arms or bend their elbows. They may have some or total paralysis of the hands, trunk and lower areas such as the legs.

The individual will likely be able to speak and breath without assistance, and should be able to move around using a device such as a power wheelchair.

C6 Vertebrae:

Whilst there is likely to be paralysis in the hands, legs and trunk, the individual will typically be able to bend their wrists and speak. They may have weakened breathing but can climb in and out of support such as wheelchairs and beds with the aid of assistive technology.

C7 Vertebrae:

There is more movement in the hands and wrists as well as shoulder activity. They may also be able to drive a vehicle that has been specially adapted.

C8 Vertebrae:

The individual should be able to grasp and hold objects as the nerves involved in hand movement are not damaged.

All cervical spinal cord injuries will cause issues for bladder and bowel control, but those with lower-level injuries will be able to more effectively manage these issues.

Cervical Spinal Cord Injury Causes

The most common causes of cervical spinal cord injuries are traumatic events such as automobile accidents, falls, sporting injuries and acts of violence.

Cervical Spinal Cord Injury Symptoms

The symptoms will vary depending on where the injury occurs. For example, a C1-C4 level injury will often mean that the individual has severe difficulty with breathing and speaking. There will be loss of feeling as well as some tingling sensation below the level of the injury.

For all cervical spinal cord injuries, there will be total or partial paralysis of the lower body including the legs, depending on the extent of the damage. Individuals will also face issues around bowel and bladder management.

Treatment and Recovery Following a Cervical Spinal Cord Injury

Cervical spinal cord injury complications, such as problems with breathing, bladder and bowel control will mean that the patient will undoubtably face many challenges. The initial stages of treatment will involve stabilizing the patient to make sure no further damage occurs.

Longer-term treatment may involve surgery to lower the pressure on the spinal cord, ongoing pain management and physical therapy.