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Spinal cord injuries: Type and location of damage matter

Some accidents can cause catastrophic injuries, including ones to the spinal cord. An estimated 450,000 people in this country have this type of injury and an estimated 11,000 more happen each year. These are expensive injuries that can require extensive medical care and personal care assistance.

Victims of spinal cord injuries can suffer from a variety of impacts due to their condition. The exact effects depend on the type and location of the injury. Higher level injuries usually have more serious and limiting impacts.

Levels of the spinal column

The spinal cord extends from the base of the skull down to the tailbone. It is divided into four sections that run from the top to the bottom. These include cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacrum. When the spinal cord is damaged, areas of the body that are lower than the injury are usually affected.

Injuries to the cervical spine can lead to tetraplegia. This means that all four limbs are paralyzed or have altered muscle strength. When the lumbar or thoracic areas are damaged, the person will likely have paraplegia. This means the legs are paralyzed or weakened.

Type of injury

Another factor that impacts how a person is affected by the injury is the type of damage that's done. There are two primary forms of injuries – complete or incomplete. A complete injury occurs when the spinal cord is so damaged that there is no sensation or movement below that level. This accounts for almost half of all spinal cord injuries in this country.

An incomplete injury means that there is some feeling or movement below the level of the injury. There are many different forms of incomplete injuries. These are categorized by the spinal cord component that is damaged. Central cord syndrome affects the large nerve fibers that relay messages to the spinal cord from the cerebral cortex. Anterior cord syndrome is due to damage done in the pathways that control motor and sensory function in the anterior area of the cord.

Living with a spinal cord injury

In the immediate days after the accident, you might have a loss of function that is greater than what will eventually occur. It is possible to regain some function after the injury as the swelling in the spinal cord abates. This is why having immediate care is so important.

The cost of life with a spinal cord injury is considerable. Victims who suffered damage due to a motor vehicle crash or because of the negligence of another person might choose to seek compensation from the liable party to defray the costs of care.

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