Types of Spinal Cord Injury & SCI Classifications
Approximately 40 million people in the United States experience spinal cord injuries each year. Fortunately, only a fraction of these cases warrant hospitalization. (Lesser spinal cord injuries include whiplash and injuries that cause temporary loss of function.)
There are many different types of severe Spinal Cord Injury, each with distinct characteristics. Doctors determine the type of SCI through a combination of X-rays, CT Scans, MRI, and Myelography (x-ray after injection dye is used).
Depending on the injury, some patients can recover function, so SCI classifications are not necessarily permanent.
The American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA), in conjunction with leading medical experts, has refined the classification system which is used by most medical organizations. The following is a breakdown of the specific criteria used by ASIA and doctors.
Complete Spinal Cord Injury
This type of spinal cord injury is, as the name infers, the most debilitating. Most complete spinal cord injuries result in paraplegia or quadriplegia/tetraplegia. With time, some complete SCI victims may recover some motor functions.
Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury
Incomplete SCI encompasses several different complications. Injury victims typically retain varying levels of movement and function below the location of their injury. Doctors tend to examine whether patients have enough mobility to provide force against objects, or if patients can only lift their limbs against gravity.
Other classifications for incomplete SCI include:
- Anterior Cord Syndrome: Damage is towards the front of the spinal cord, which is commonly associated with loss of temperature and pain sensation below the location of the injury.
- Brown-Sequard Syndrome: Damage is limited to one side of the spine, which causes loss of function on one side of the body and weakness and loss of function on the other side.
- Central Cord Syndrome: Damage is located in the center of the spine, often resulting in loss of function in the upper body, and weakness in the lower regions.
- Posterior Cord Syndrome: This rare type of SCI is characterized by difficulty in movement coordination, but general function is retained.
The American Spinal Cord Injury Association further classifies SCI under the letters A-E.
- A – Complete. No motor or sensory function.
- B – Incomplete. Sensory but no motor function is available.
- C – Incomplete. Motor function is preserved and more than half of key muscles have severely limited use.
- D – Incomplete. Motor function is preserved and more than half of key muscles have basis functionality.
- E – Normal. Sensory and motor functions are functioning normally.
Motor and Sensory Levels
Your spine consists of vertebrae intertwined with nerves that control different bodily functions. An alpha numerical system classifies the specific vertebrae and muscle function affected by the injury.
These are as follows:
- C-1 to C-7 – Cervical Region
- T-1 to T-12 – Thoracic Region
- L-1 to L-5 – Lumbar Region
- S-1 – Sacral Region
Keep in mind that an injury to one area of the spinal cord tends to affect the entire body from that point below. So injuries to the neck-level cervical vertebrae (C-1 to C-7) can be the most dangerous of all. Injuries to the C-4 may result in quadriplegia, or a loss of motor function in the legs and arms. Injuries to the higher up C-1 or C-2 could result in breathing difficulties.
Though there is no cure for SCI, treatments are available to enable people to enjoy their everyday lives and to transcend this injury. Please take the time to explore the valuable information that we have included on this website.
For more information on the ASIA classification system, please see the sample SCI exam evaluation sheet at the ASIA website.