Classifying a Spinal Cord Injury

A spinal cord injury can be classified by level or by type. The level of injury describes the location of the injury and what parts of the body are affected while the injury type describes the degree of damage.

Level of Spinal Cord Injury

The level of spinal-cord injury refers to the location along the spinal cord where the injury occurred and also indicates which body parts are most likely to experience a loss of movement and/or sensation. The level of injury is designated by a letter-number combination such as C2; the letter represents an area of the spinal cord (cervical, thoracic, lumbar, or saccral) while the number represents a specific cord within that area. For example, in the thoracic area, the fifth cord is called T5.

Type of Spinal Cord Injury

The type of spinal-cord injury can either be complete or incomplete. In a complete injury, there is total paralysis (lack of movement and sensation) equally on both sides of the body; either two limbs are paralyzed (paraplegia) or all four limbs are paralyzed (tetraplegia, also called quadriplegia). With an incomplete injury, there is only a partial loss of function usually more or less on one side of the body or the other; for example, the injured person may have sensation but no movement in a limb or the person has greater control over the left limb more than the right limb.