What ‘Grade’ is My Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury?

After suffering a spinal cord injury (SCI), it can be confusing, frustrating and overwhelming to realize how much you don’t necessarily know about your injury. What you do know is that your spinal cord — delicate bundles of nerves that serve as the brain’s communication channel to the rest of your nervous system — is hurt, and you need to know what that means for your future and how you can begin your road to recovery.

You’ve probably spoken with many doctors and specialists who have been assessing the extent of the damage that has been caused by your spinal cord injury. You may have heard them talking about complete and incomplete injuries and injury “grades,” but don’t fully understand what they mean by those terms. We are here to help you fill in some of the blanks.  

When doctors talk about complete and incomplete injuries, the two terms are referencing:

  • Complete spinal cord injuries cause compression or severance of the spinal cord, preventing your brain from communicating with your body below the injury site. With treatment and physical therapy, it is possible to recover some function.
  • Incomplete spinal cord injuries result in partially compromised functions with the effects varying based on the severity of the injuries. The degree of function that is regained after this type of injury depends on the extent of the injuries sustained.

It isn’t just a matter of your cord being fully intact or completely severed; there are issues of spinal contusion (bruising), compression, and inflammation that can affect your brain’s ability to send signals.

As a result of these variations, there are different levels or “grades” that are used by medical professionals to assess the severity of the damage to your cord, ranging from “A” to “E.” The higher the grade, the more severe the damage tends to be.

Let’s take a look at the American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) Impairment Scale to learn more about what each grade means for you.

Spinal Cord Injury Grades

A – This is considered a complete SCI. No sensory or motor function is preserved (including your sacral segments S4-S5).

B Your sensory function — but not motor function — is preserved below the neurological level (including the sacral segments S4-S5).

C This is an incomplete spinal cord injury in which your motor function is preserved below the neurological level, or you meet grade B criteria and have some motor function.

D – You meet the criteria defined by grade C by having preserved motor function as well as at least half of your muscle functions having a grade of three or higher.

E Your motor function and sensory scores are normal. You may have suffered a spinal cord injury, but you will not experience paralysis and loss of sensations. However, there may be neurological or muscular changes or deficits.

Treatment and Recovery

Don’t lose heart: If you’ve received a diagnosis of an incomplete or complete spinal cord injury, it does not mean achieving recovery is impossible. Some factors that play critical roles in your recovery include the rehabilitative and medical care you receive early in your journey to recovery, having a positive attitude, and being willing to lean on your existing support system. Just know that you don’t have to face this situation alone: Seek out peer support through our SpinalCord.com online community of survivors and family members.

Because incomplete injuries allow your spinal cord to retain some function and to communicate some signals from the brain, survivors of incomplete spinal cord injuries often progress in recovery more rapidly than those with complete SCIs. Learning to cope with a SCI is an important and necessary step in your recuperation, and early intervention is key to your recovery after sustaining a traumatic injury.

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