How Do Cervical Spinal Cord Injuries Affect Breathing?

A cervical spinal cord injury (SCI) is the most severe type of injury to affect the spinal cord. In addition to an increased risk of death, a cervical spinal injury frequently results in quadriplegia, also known as tetraplegia, or paralysis in the body below the injury site. This is because the spinal cord itself is a group of nerve bundles (C1-C7) that control the motor and sensory functions throughout the body.

x-ray-image-of-the-cervical-spineThe National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCISC) estimates that between 250,000 and 368,000 people are living with spinal cord injuries in the U.S. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, “The most common sites of injury are the cervical and thoracic areas. SCI is a common cause of permanent disability and death in children and adults.”

The cervical spinal cord is the topmost section of the spinal cord, above the thoracic spinal cord, and is located in your neck. Because it is the section of the spinal cord that is closest to the brain, cervical cord injuries impede the communication between the brain and the rest of the body.

The Impact of Cervical Spinal Cord Injuries

When someone suffers a cervical spinal cord injury, everything below the site of the injury is affected to a certain extent. Individuals with incomplete cervical spinal cord injuries may retain a certain amount of sensory or motor function because their spinal nerves are affected but are not entirely impeded. Survivors with complete spinal cord injuries, on the other hand, may retain no motor or sensory functions below the site of their cervical injuries.

The general rule of thumb is that the higher the injury occurs in the spinal cord, the more life-threatening and damaging the results. For example, C1 and C2 cervical injuries are the worst to sustain and frequently result in death or full paralysis.

This impairment of essential bodily functions after a c-spine injury can affect everything from motor and sensory functions to the capabilities of the respiratory system as a whole. A cervical spinal cord injury places a spinal cord injury survivor at an increased risk of developing a variety of health risks and secondary complications, such as:

  • Cardiac and circulatory issues
  • Respiratory difficulties or loss of function
  • Numbness or loss of feeling below the injury site
  • Paralysis
  • Bladder and bowel function loss
  • Urinary tract infections (UTIs)
  • Thermoregulatory impairment (inability to regulate body temperature)

Here are a few of the ways that cervical injuries create health risks and affect the respiratory system.

How Cervical SCIs Affect Respiratory Functions

Both thoracic and cervical spinal cord injuries affect the spinal nerves that control the body's respiratory muscles. A complete spinal cord injury affecting the cervical spinal cord will impact the diaphragm as well as the intercostal and abdominal muscles. As a result, an SCI survivor will have issues breathing, sneezing, and coughing. An incomplete SCI also will result in breathing difficulties as well to a certain extent.

According to the Shepherd Center:

  • Injuries impacting C3 and above impact the diaphragm. A ventilator is frequently required for breathing, and the patient can’t sneeze or cough. Without the ability to sneeze or cough to rid the lungs of mucus, cervical spinal cord injury survivors are more likely to develop respiratory infections.
  • Injuries affecting C4-C5 eliminate movement of the intercostal and abdominal muscles. However, limited diaphragm functionality is still possible. This means that while a ventilator may not be needed continually, it may be needed some of the time.
  • Injuries of the C6-C8 cervical spinal cord enable good diaphragm control and functionality. However, the abdominal and intercostal muscles are capable of limited function only.

The lower on the spinal cord the injury occurs, the more functionality the SCI survivor will retain.

To learn more about cervical spinal cord injuries and spinal cord injuries as a whole, download our complimentary resource by clicking on the link below. If you have questions about these types of injuries, SCI rehabilitation, or want to speak to a spinal cord injury lawyer, contact the Spinal Cord team today.

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Topics: Spinal Cord Injury, Education

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