Topics: Spinal Cord Injury

Complete vs. Incomplete Spinal Cord Injuries



A generation ago, complete spinal cord injuries were the prevailing norm among spinal cord injury survivors. Thanks to excellent rapid response, improved technology, and a better understanding of spinal cord injuries, complete spinal cord injuries make up just 30% of spinal cord injuries. Understanding the difference between these two injury types can help you better predict your recovery trajectory.

Complete spinal cord injuries occur when the spinal cord is fully compressed or severed, completely eliminating the brain's ability to send signals below the point of injury.

Incomplete spinal cord injuries occur when the spinal cord is compressed or injured, but the brain's ability to send signals below the site of the injury is not completely removed.

When comparing complete vs. incomplete spinal cord injuries, it is not always easy to discern which type you have. Particularly in the first weeks after an injury, swelling may interfere with function. When swelling goes down, an injury that appeared to be a complete spinal cord injury might turn out to be incomplete.

How Complete and Incomplete Spinal Cord Injuries are Caused

Whether a spinal cord injury is complete or incomplete has little to do with the source of the injury. A gunshot can fully or partially sever the spinal cord, and the outcome provides little insight into how severe the initial injury was. Something as seemingly innocuous as the position in which you were sitting at the time of the injury may determine whether it is complete or incomplete. The leading causes of both complete and incomplete spinal cord injuries are:

  • Car accidents (36.5%)
  • Falls (28.5%)
  • Violence, primarily gunshot wounds (14.3%)
  • Sports (9.2%)

The remainder includes infections, unknown injuries, and similar injury sources.

Hallmarks of a Complete Spinal Cord Injury

A complete spinal cord injury removes the brain's ability to send signals down the spinal cord below the site of the injury. Thus, a complete spinal cord injury in your lumbar spinal cord might lead to paralysis below the waist though movement in your arms and upper body is preserved.

In the days immediately following your spinal cord injury, the symptoms of a complete and incomplete spinal cord injury are virtually indistinguishable. Over time, though, small differences may begin to emerge.

Those characteristics include:

  • Loss of sensation below the site of the injury. 
  • Complete loss of motion below the site of the injury. 
  • Difficulty controlling your bladder and bowels. 
  • If the injury is high enough in your spinal cord, difficulty breathing on your own.

Hallmarks of an Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury

With an incomplete spinal cord injury, the spinal cord's functions are only partially compromised. The effects of an incomplete spinal cord injury, then, vary more widely. Someone with an incomplete spinal cord injury due to an infection may retain significant function. But a gunshot wound survivors whose injury is high on the spine but incomplete may face obstacles similar to those faced by a complete spinal cord injury survivor.

Some characteristics of an incomplete spinal cord injury include:

  • Retaining some sensation below the site of the injury. The feelings may come and go, and may be much weaker than the sensations you used to experience. 
  • Being able to move some muscles below the site of the injury. The extent of movement may vary, and you may have good control over some muscles, but no control over others. 
  • Pain below the injury; many incomplete spinal cord injury survivors report issues with chronic pain. 

With both incomplete and complete spinal cord injuries, mobility impairments, including tetraplegia/quadriplegia and paraplegia, are common.

Differences in Treatment and Recovery

Because incomplete spinal cord injuries allow the spinal cord to retain some function, incomplete injury survivors often make faster progress in recovery. This is not the only factor influencing recovery, though. Other significant issues include:

  • The location of the injury. The higher the injury is, the more unlikely recovery becomes. 
  • Your overall health. Health factors can complicate the recovery process. An infection, for instance, may increase swelling, thereby slowing down the recovery journey. 
  • The quality of medical care you receive. Spinal cord injury survivors who seek care at facilities offering Model Systems care generally have better outcomes. 
  • Your commitment to physical therapy. Physical therapy is challenging, and often painful. But it is the most effective way to teach your brain how to communicate with the rest of your body. 

Spinal cord injuries are unpredictable things, and though a complete spinal cord injury is a more severe injury, it is neither a death sentence nor a reason to be hopelessness. Luck, dedication to recovery, and good medical care can all help you move toward wholeness and wellness.

Much remains to be understood about spinal cord injuries, and as technology changes and research improves, doctors may develop novel and effective ways for treating even the most severe spinal cord injuries.

Need more information on spinal cord injuries? Download our free eBook, "The Simplified Guide to Understanding a Spinal Cord Injury," by clicking the button below.


Zawn Villines

Written by Zawn Villines

Zawn Villines is a writer specializing in health and legal journalism. Raised by a lawyer and lobbyist who advocated for spinal cord injury survivors, she is a lifelong advocate for spinal injury victims and their loved ones. You can connect with Zawn on Google+ below.

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