SCI 101 & Rehab

Intro to SCI

A spinal cord injury turns your life upside-down. You go from running around not worried about a thing, to being in a wheelchair unable to walk or worse. It's a hard adjustment that takes a lot of time to get used to.

We HIGHLY recommend checking out this list of SCI grants to help pay for expenses related to your injury. Many invaluable grant resources are available.

Why is a tear or a bruise to the spinal cord so serious? The reason - the spinal cord can't fix itself. Unlike a broken bone, a hurt spinal cord does not get better. Like an amputated arm, it cannot grow back. Doctors however are working hard to figure out how to heal it. They're getting close, but they still have a ways to go.

Here are all the ways a body can change when a spinal cord injury occurs:

  • You no longer move certain parts of your body
  • You no longer feel certain parts of your body
  • You no longer feel when you have to go to the bathroom.
  • Many also have a hard coughing or breathing
  • The entire body feels the effects of the injury
  • Most have to use wheelchairs

You may be wondering, why are some people with spinal cord injuries unable to move anything while others can move their arms, but not their legs? It all depends on where the spinal cord the injury happens. The higher it is on your spinal cord (the closer it is to your head) the worse the injury is. And the lower your injury is, the less you'll be paralyzed. 

For those who injure their spinal cords in their neck, they're called quadriplegics (definition: paralysis of all four limbs or of the entire body below the neck ). These people sometimes can't move their arms or their legs. Some however can move their arms if their spinal cord is damaged in the neck, the injury is just lower in the neck.

And for anyone who hurts their spinal cord in the back, they're called paraplegics (definition: paralysis of both lower limbs due to spinal disease or injury ). These folks usually can move more. Most can move their arms like normal, their hands and fingers too, but most have no leg movement.

Also, if the spinal cord is torn in two (called a "complete" injury) this is the worst damage you can happen to a spinal cord. Many people with an injury like this can't move or feel anything below their level of injury. If a spinal cord is injured but was not torn in two, you have a much better chance of maybe feeling or moving again (this is called an "incomplete" injury).

To see exactly how a spinal cord who works, watch the video below. Afterwards, please read the Takeaway Points.

Levels of Function in Spinal Cord Injury


Takeaway Points:

  1. The spinal cord relays messages from the brain to the rest of the body
  2. A spinal cord injury can happen from any kind of damage to it
  3. When damaged, the signals are interrupted, leaving normal function above the level of injury and limited function below the level of injury
  4. Motor, sensory, bowel, bladder and respiratory functions are affected when the spinal cord is injured
  5. The higher the damage on the spinal cord, the more significant of injury
  6. Letters (and numbers) are used to describe a spinal cord injury location. They are:
    • C stands for cervical (the neck):
      • C1-C3 - Loss of breathing ability and movement from the shoulders down limited
      • C3-C4 - Movement of the shoulders possible
      • C5-C6 - Arm extension and wrist movement to a certain degree possible
      • C7-8 - More wrist and some finger movement included with both bicep and triceps function
    • T stands for thoracic (the back):
      • T1-T12 - Varying torso muscles are affected, with less muscles affected with the lower the injury
      • T12 injuries have full torso control
    • L is for lumbar (lower back):
      • L1 - L4 - Hips and minimal leg movement possible with braces

Helpful Links:

- Understanding Spinal Cord Injury: Part 1 - The Body Before and After Injury (PDF) - UAB-SCIMS-