Effects of spinal injury

The effects of a spinal cord injury depend on a number of factors, for example the injury’s severity and its location on the spinal cord. The effects are far-reaching, affecting not only those injured, but also friends and family. Read on to learn more.

Effects of complete tetraplegia

Complete tetraplegia is the most severe and debilitating level of paralysis. It is the loss of function and sensation in the arms, legs and body caused by complete damage to the spinal cord in the neck (cervical region).

Primary Effects

The precise effects of complete tetraplegia vary depending on which part of the spinal cord has sustained injury.

Injuries are often described by reference to the level of the vertebrae at which the injury occurs – from the top (C1) to the bottom (C8), the higher the injury occurs the greater the level of disability.

The table below provides a general overview of the extent of the effects of different injury sites.

Effects and/or Remaining Abilities Types of Tetraplegia
Complete paralysis of the arms, body and legs C1, C2, C3
Complete paralysis of the body and legs but with limited arm function C4, C5, C6, C7, C8
Ability to move the head and neck Severely limited: C1, C2, C3
In some cases fully: C4
Fully, with good muscle strength: C5, C6, C7 & C8
Ability to move shoulders Limited: C4
Good: C5, C6, C7 & C8
Ability to bend elbows C5, C6, C7 & C8
Ability to lift hands (wrist extension) C6, C7 & C8
Cannot breathe unaided (machinery assistance required) C1, C2
In some cases: C3
Ability to breathe without assistance In some cases: C4
C5, C6, C7 & C8
Build-up of waste in windpipe. Assistance required for coughing C1, C2, C3, C4 & C5
In some cases: C6, C7 & C8
Loss of bowel and bladder functionality C1, C2, C3, C4, C5, C6, C7 & C8
Ability to bend and straighten elbows C7 & C8
Partial finger movement, grip and mobility C7 & C8
May transfer body independently depending on upper body strength C7 & C8

Secondary effects

The near complete loss of function, sensation and mobility associated with complete tetraplegia can cause many secondary medical complications, some of which are listed below:

  • Autonomic Dysreflexia
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Osteoporosis
  • Frozen joints
  • Respiratory infections
  • Pneumonia
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Pressure sores
  • Spasticity

These complications range from the mild to the life-threatening and although not all are guaranteed to occur, steps must be taken to minimise their chances, such as regular movement to prevent pressure sores or reacting quickly to Autonomic Dysreflexia to prevent strokes.


A high level of care and assistance is required after a complete spinal cord injury in the neck. Usually a stay of 6 months or more in a specialist unit is required for rehabilitation.

Technological advances continue to improve the lives of those with complete tetraplegia: from improved breathing apparatus, powered wheelchairs and automatically opening doors, to equipment activated by mouth, chin, head, and even blink control. In some cases, reconstructive hand surgery may be possible to improve function, such as grip and release, or even the attachment of a bionic glove.

C1 to C4 tetraplegics will generally require the most personal care and assistance, but for those with some arm movement present – or enough to use assistive equipment – it can even be possible to perform some daily activities.

Effects of complete paraplegia

Complete paraplegia is caused by damage across the spinal cord anywhere below the neck region, specifically to the following regions of the spine:

  • Thoracic (T1 to T12 vertebrae) – the upper middle region.
  • Lumbar (L1 to L5) – the lower middle region.
  • Sacral (S1 to S5) – the lower region.

Primary effects

The main effects of this injury are the loss of movement and feeling in the legs (and usually the trunk of the body), whereas the arms and hands can still be used as normal.

Injury to the higher thoracic region (the T1 to the T6 vertebrae) causes a complete loss of function and sensation below the mid-chest. As a result, abdominal muscle is diminished meaning there is little trunk control and poor balance when sitting; the bladder and bowel functions may no longer work properly; and function in the reproductive area is also lost.

Complete damage further down the spinal cord in the lower thoracic region (T9 to the T12) still means a loss of function and sensation in the legs, but abdominal muscle strength is preserved so there can be good balance when sitting along with some general movement of the trunk.

Secondary effects

The loss of function and sensation in the legs suffered can often be the catalyst for further secondary medical complications. Although not an exhaustive sample, some are listed below:

  • Autonomic dysreflexia
  • Hyperthermia and hypothermia
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Osteoporosis
  • Chronic nerve pain
  • Pneumonia
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Skin breakdown or pressure sores
  • Fertility in men may be affected
  • Spasticity

Fortunately, through medical care and rehabilitation, there are methods to help minimise the chances of these complications. For example, assisting people to stand for short periods can help prevent pressure sores and Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT).


A complete spinal cord injury resulting in complete paraplegia usually requires a stay in a specialist spinal unit for several months. During this time, extensive rehabilitation, skill-building and physiotherapy are undertaken in order to prepare people with paraplegia for day-to-day life with their new physical challenges.

Upon leaving hospital care, people with paraplegia can usually retain independence with the ability to provide self-care such as feeding, bathing, dressing and so on. They may however need assistance from others or via technology with some household and other tasks. Most use a self-propelled (manual) wheelchair for mobility but some will also require powered wheelchairs.

People who have suffered complete lower spinal injuries may be able to stand (with assistance) for short periods of time. In fact, it’s possible for some to be able to walk supervised for short distances, aided by such equipment as long leg braces and a weight-taking walker.

It is important therefore to understand that complete paraplegia does not necessarily mean the complete loss of all mobility, and there are rehabilitation methods and equipment that can help people maintain their independence.

Effects of incomplete spinal cord injuries

An incomplete spinal cord injury is when the cord is partially damaged. It is the most common type of spinal injury and the one where either limited movement or feeling (or both) can remain below the point of damage.

The effects of an incomplete injury differ depending on several factors including:

  • How the spinal cord was damaged;
  • The area of the spinal cord affected;
  • The strength of the impact that caused the injury.

Incomplete damage to different areas of the spinal cord will have different effects.

Anterior cord syndrome

This injury happens when there is damage to the front of the spinal cord. As well as a loss of strength beneath the point of injury, there is also impact on feelings of temperature and pain.

Some sensations are preserved, however, such as the feeling of vibration and the awareness of positioning. For some people, it may be possible to recover some movement.

Central cord syndrome

This is an injury to the nerves at the centre of the spinal cord, usually the result of trauma, which prevents the brain sending information down the spinal cord to the rest of the body.

These nerves are critical in enabling normal use of the arms and hands, so the main effect of central cord syndrome is that arm function is lost. Depending on the severity of the nerve damage, there may also be a loss of bladder and bowel control.

Some function can be preserved in the legs, and during the recovery process, it may be possible to improve this gradually.

Posterior cord syndrome

Posterior Cord Syndrome is an incomplete injury to the back of the spinal cord. The resulting effects are characterised by a continued ability to move but with a lack of limb control and coordination.

Below the site of injury, there will still be good muscle power and sensations of temperature and pain are usually preserved.

Brown-Sequard syndrome

Brown-Sequard Syndrome is a rare condition where injury to one side of the spinal cord causes an inverted mirror image of complications.

Beneath the site of damage to the cord, the effects can be a complete loss of movement on one side of the body but with preserved sensations of pain and temperature. However, on the other side of the body the opposite is true in that sensations of pain and temperature are lost but normal movement is preserved.

Cauda equina syndrome

The cauda equina is a mass group of nerves in the lower back area. Once trauma is suffered the nerves are compressed, which at the very least causes strong lower back pain.

More extreme is the partial, or in some cases the complete loss of movement and feeling as well as bladder and bowel dysfunction.

However, if the nerves have not suffered too much trauma and damage, it is possible for them to regrow and encourage some recovery of movement.

Find out more about how spinal cord injuries are treated in our rehabilitation section.

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