Spinal cord function

Complete vs Incomplete Spinal Cord Injuries – What are the Differences?

An injury to the spine can have long-lasting and debilitating effects on the individual who sustains it. The spinal cord is protected by layers of membranes, cerebrospinal fluid and bone but it is still one of the most delicate parts of the body.

Damage can occur in a variety of ways including dislocation, fracture, compression and hyperextension of the spinal cord. Statistics suggest that the vast majority of spinal cord injuries are caused by accidents, such as vehicle collisions, sporting incidents and falls. Spinal cord injuries can also be caused by illness and disease and even from medical negligence.

Accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries worldwide

The spinal cord doesn’t have to be completely cut for there to be loss of function. Partial bruising or situations where the spinal cord is crushed can cause issues with the transmission and receiving of signals from the rest of the body. The severity and the eventual after effects depend on a wide variety of factors and each case is different.

When diagnosing the damage sustained, medical professionals will generally distinguish between complete and incomplete spinal cord injuries. In the initial stages of any diagnosis, these can both seem quite similar. It’s only as time goes on that a real difference becomes apparent, which is why care in the initial period after an injury is so important.

Complete spinal cord injuries are where no signals from the brain can penetrate below the area of the injury. Incomplete means that there is still some functioning and some messages are still getting through, although with reduced effect.

Complete Spinal Cord Injuries

Complete spinal cord injury definition: A complete spinal cord injury prevents the brain from sending or receiving signals below the area of damage. For example, if you have a severe lumbar spinal injury, it would cause paralysis and loss of sensation in the lower part of your body while the upper half would be able to function normally.

Complete spinal cord injury prognosis often depends on where the damage occurs. In general, the higher up the spinal cord, the more unlikely it is that you will recover the functioning that you previously experienced.

There are a number of factors that distinguish a complete spinal cord injury from incomplete:

  • There is full loss of sensation (including pain) below the area of the injury.
  • There is complete loss of motion.
  • The patient may experience bladder and bowel problems.
  • Difficulty breathing (if the injury to the spine is higher up)

Because this kind of damage is permanent, it often results in patients becoming paraplegic or tetraplegic. The higher up the spinal injury, the more life-threatening and debilitating it tends to be. Lower down, a person may have to contend with not being able to move their legs and having to use a wheelchair to get around, but their upper body movement should be unaffected.

Paralysis is not the only symptom of a severe spinal cord injury. There are also other issues that the individual may have to contend with, such as bladder and bowel control as well as problems with digestion and blood pressure regulation.

Incomplete Spinal Cord Injuries

Incomplete spinal cord injury definition: An incomplete spinal cord injury refers to when the damage to the spinal cord is only partial, meaning that there is still some sensation and movement below the injury location. As you might expect, there is a lot of variation with this type of damage, and incomplete spinal cord injury prognosis will depend on a number of circumstances, including the location and severity of the injury.

  • There will be some sensation below the area of the injury. This may fluctuate depending on the severity and location of the damage
  • The individual will be able to move some muscles in the area below the injury site but, again, this might be disrupted or variable depending on the type of damage sustained
  • One of the main problems that individuals with an incomplete spinal cord injury have to deal with is chronic pain

All spinal cord injuries are unpredictable but, because there is still some sensation and movement below the area of the injury, the prospect for recovery is much better than with complete spinal cord damage.

The individual may be faced with a long road ahead but recovery, even if only partial, is usually much quicker. Having said that, many factors need to be taken into account, not least the personal health status of the individual.


Any spinal cord damage can have a huge effect on the life, health and wellbeing of an individual. The prognosis and recovery process will depend a lot on the severity, type and level of the spinal cord injury. Rehabilitation techniques are continuously improving, allowing those with complete and incomplete spinal cord injuries to make progress in their recovery.