What is a SCI

*The following information is for general education purposes only and should not be substituted for medical advice. Every spinal cord injury and the amount of functional return associated with it is completely unique. Please consult with your physician to discuss your individual condition.


How the Human Spinal Cord Works

The human spinal cord operates much like a telephone line, relaying messages from the brain to the rest of the body.


Causes of Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord injuries are caused by bruising, crushing, or tearing of the delicate cord tissue.  Swelling of the spinal cord after the injury can cause even more damage.


The Impact of Spinal Cord Injuries

After an injury, the “messages” sent between the brain and the other parts of the body no longer flow through the damaged area.  Many times the functions of the body which are located above the injury point will continue to work properly without impairment.  However, the area below the injury point will be impaired to some degree, which will include any combination of the following: motor deficit, sensory deficit, initial breathing difficulty, and/or bowel and bladder dysfunction.

Complete vs. Incomplete

Spinal cord injuries are classified as complete or incomplete.  When an injury is called complete, it means the feeling and control of movement below the point of injury are totally lost.  In an incomplete injury, there may be some feeling and control of movement below the point of injury.


Levels Of Function
Letters and numbers are used to identify the specific area of the spinal cord that is involved in the injury.  For example, an injury at C-4 means the injury occurred at the fourth vertebrae in the cervical region.

There are four sections of the spine – the Cervical, Thoracic, Lumbar, and Sacral.  Spinal cord injuries that result in quadriplegia and paraplegia are located in the top three sections.

A loss of function is associated with each level of injury.  The higher the point of injury, the more function is lost.
C – Level Function
C-1 to C-3 Limited movement of head and neck; dependent on ventilator; difficulty talking.
C-3 to C-4 Usually has head and neck control and the ability to shrug shoulders; usually adjusts to breathing without ventilator; able to talk.
C-5 Typically has head and neck control; full shoulder control; can bend elbows; turn palms face up; can eat, drink, wash face, brush teeth, and shave by him/herself; can manage own healthcare; may push own wheelchair; driving may be possible.
C-6 Movement in head, neck, shoulders, arms, and wrists; can shrug shoulders, bend elbows, turn palms up and down and extend wrists; manage hygiene needs; perform light housekeeping duties; can manage and perform own healthcare; turn in bed; can transfer from chair to other surface with help from adaptive aids; can use a manual wheelchair.
C-7 Similar abilities as C-6 level with greater ease; added ability to straighten elbows; needs fewer adaptive aids to perform all functions.
T – Level Function
T-1 Added strength and precision of fingers that result in near natural function; can live independently without assistive devices for hygiene needs and personal health care; can transfer from wheelchair to other surface without the use of adaptive aids.
T-2 to T-6 Normal function in head, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers; increased use of rib and chest muscles; totally independent with all activities; few may have limited walking capability.
T-7 to T-12 Similar to T-2 to T-6 function with added function and control; has improved cough effectiveness.
L - Level Function
L-1 to L-5 Additional return of motor movement in the hips and knees; walking can be a viable function with assistive devices.