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Incomplete tetraplegia, a type of incomplete spinal cord injury, is the single most common form of spinal cord injury, accounting for 40.8% of all such injuries.

Put simply, an incomplete spinal cord injury occurs whenever an injury survivor retains some feeling below the site of the injury. People who sustain an incomplete injury typically make better and more rapid progress on the recovery journey.

What Causes an Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury?

A spinal cord injury can be incomplete in one of two ways. If the injury is not severe enough to sever the spinal cord, or to severely interfere with function, the injury may be classified as incomplete. For instance, a woman who sustains a strong blow to her back that lessens sensations below her waist, but does not completely eliminate them, has sustained an incomplete spinal cord injury.

In a medical climate where spinal cord injuries are increasingly well understood and injury survivors are better equipped to take prompt action, most incomplete spinal cord injuries are actually a product of the immediate aftermath of the injury—not the injury itself. When a medical team takes immediate steps to reduce swelling, the odds of avoiding a complete injury increase. Likewise, when first responders avoid sudden or aggressive movements that could further injure the spinal cord, an incomplete injury becomes more likely.

Types of Incomplete Spinal Cord Injuries

Knowing that a spinal cord injury is “incomplete” isn't in and of itself enough to know the severity of the injury. Incomplete injuries manifest in myriad ways. Some of the most common include:

  • Anterior cord syndrome: causes injury to the front of the spinal cord, interfering with sensations of touch, pain, and temperature. Most anterior cord injury survivors can recover some movement.
  • Central cord syndrome: occurs when the center of the cord is injured. Loss of sensation is common, and survivors rarely recover movement in their arms, but movement in the legs may be possible.
  • Posterior cord syndrome: causes injuries to the back of the spinal cord. Most posterior injury survivors maintain good posture and muscle tone, as well as some movement but struggle with poor coordination.
  • Cauda equina lesion: damages the nerves between the first and second lumbar regions of the spine, resulting in a loss of sensation, but not a loss of movement. It may be possible to repair or regenerate some nerves to improve function.
  • Brown-Sequard syndrome: produces an asymmetrical injury affecting only one side of the spinal cord, allowing movement and sensation to continue on one side of the body, but not the other.