A cervical spinal cord injury (SCI) is a serious, life-threatening emergency that can cause paralysis and loss of sensation throughout the entire body. Depending on the level and severity of a cervical spinal cord injury, it can affect major body functions like breathing and mobility from your neck down.
This article will help you understand what to expect after a cervical SCI by guiding you through the functions affected at each level of injury. Use the links below to jump straight to any section:
- C1 spinal cord injury
- C2 spinal cord injury
- C3 spinal cord injury
- C4 spinal cord injury
- C5 spinal cord injury
- C6 spinal cord injury
- C7 spinal cord injury
- C8 spinal cord injury
Understanding Cervical Spinal Cord Injury
The cervical spinal cord is the uppermost region of the spinal cord that primarily makes up the area along your neck. Because the cervical region bears less weight and has a greater range of motion than lower parts of the spine, it tends to be less stable and more vulnerable to injury. As a result, almost60%of all spinal cord injuries result in cervical-level injuries.
The cervical region of the spinal cord consists of 8 levels that communicate with different areas of the body. Specifically, each level of the cervical spinal cord sends and receives signals regarding movement and sensation in the neck, arms and hands.
However, after a cervical spinal cord injury, individuals will experience loss of motor control and/or sensation throughout the arms, trunk, and legs. This occurs because signals from the brain cannot pass through damaged areas of the spinal cord.
As a result, sensory and motor functions below the level of injury can also be affected. Since the majority of the body can potentially be affected, the road to recovery is often longer for individuals with cervical spinal cord injuries compared to those with lower level injuries.
Fortunately, there is often hope for individuals to recover affected functions. The severity of a spinal cord injury can play a significant role in determining outcomes. One way to assess the severity of a SCI is to determine whether it is acomplete or incomplete injury.
A complete spinal cord injury refers to damage that transects the entire spinal cord. As a result, no connections between the brain and areas below the level of injury exist, resulting in complete loss of functions below the level of injury.
In contrast, anincomplete spinal cord injuryonly partially transects the spinal cord, leaving some spared or unaffected connections between the brain and areas below the level of injury. As a result, some (but not all) signals can be transmitted past the level of injury and individuals may be able to move or have sensation in areas below their level of injury.
Along with loss of motor control and sensation, individuals may experience additional effects. The following section will discuss various secondary effects of cervical spinal cord injury.
Effects of Cervical Spinal Cord Injury
Depending on the severity and level of your injury, cervical spinal cord injuries can affect a wide variety of functions.
Survivors of cervical spinal cord injury may experience difficulties in following areas:
- Mobility from the neck down
- Sensation from the neck down
- Fine motor skills
- Bladder and bowel control
- Sexual functions
- Body temperature regulation
Each spinal cord injury is unique and may result in various secondary effects. By taking a personalized approach to treatment and addressing complications individually, individuals can significantly improve their quality of life.
To help you get a better idea of what to expect at each level of injury, the following section will discuss which sensory and motor functions may be affected each level.
What to Expect at Each Level of Cervical Spinal Cord Injury
Each level of cervical spinal cord injury will directly affect a different set of muscles and area of skin. Level of injury is determined by the lowest area where sensory and motor functions are unaffected.
Below, you can find information onyour specific level of injury based on the internationalstandards for neurological classification.
C1 Spinal Cord Injury
C1 spinal cord injury is the most serious type of cervical spinal injury. Injury at this level has the potential cause the most widespread loss of function. In fact, C1 SCIs are often fatal because individuals may lose the ability to breathe. Luckily, this level of injury is rare and only makes up only about1.2%of all SCIs.
After a C1 spinal cord injury, the following may occur:
- Paralysis from the neck down
- Inability to breathe independently (will require ventilator assistance)
- Need full caregiver assistance due to extremely limited mobility
- Communication difficulties (ability to talk can be affected)
Learnmore about C1 spinal cord injury »
C2 Spinal Cord Injury
Because the C1 and C2 spinal nerves are closely aligned, C2 spinal cord injuries often result in similar outcomes. Along with the C1 vertebrae, the C2 vertebrae helps support the head and provide the neck with a greater range of motion than the rest of the spine.
After a C2 spinal cord injury, the following can result:
- Paralysis from the neck down
- Inability to breathe independently (will require ventilator assistance)
- Need full assistance of a caregiver
- Limited speaking ability
Read more about C2spinal cord injury »
C3 Spinal Cord Injury
The C3-C5 spinal nerves connect to the diaphragm, which is the main muscle involved in breathing. Individuals with C3 spinal cord injuries will generally have motor control and sensation in their neck.
The following may occur as a result of a C3 spinal cord injury:
- Improved head and neck control (after spinal cord damage has stabilized)
- Intact neck side flexion (the ability to tilt your head to the side)
- Loss of independent breathing (will require ventilator assistance)
- Paralysis of the arms, legs and trunk
Discover more about C3spinal cord injury »
C4 Spinal Cord Injury
After a C4 spinal cord injury, individuals may only require temporary ventilator assistance because some parts of the diaphragm are unaffected. With the help of breathing and coughing exercises, many individuals can wean off the ventilator and regain independent breathing.
Other outcomes of C4 spinal cordinjury include:
- Full head and neck mobility
- Partial shoulder mobility
- Breathing difficulties/ weakness
Learn more about C4spinal cord injuries »
C5 Spinal Cord Injury
C5 spinal nerves directly affect sensation around the outer area of the upper arm. Additionally, the C5 spinal nerves connect to the deltoids (which are responsible for shoulder movement), biceps, and brachioradialis (which are responsible for elbow flexion and upward rotation of the forearm).
Individuals with C5 spinal cord injuries may experience the following:
- Normal head, neck, and shoulder movements
- Intact sensation at head, neck, shoulders, and outer upper arms
- Ability to raise the arms and bend the elbows
- Breathing weakness (but usually no need for ventilator assistance)
Read more about C5spinal cord injuries »
C6 Spinal Cord Injury
After a C6 spinal cord injury, individuals usually retain most arm mobility. With the help of specialized adaptive tools like grip attachments, individuals with a C6 spinal cord injury should be able to perform everyday tasks like eating, grooming, and getting dressed on their own.
Some positive outcomes of C6 spinal cord injury include:
- Preservation of head, neck, and shoulder movements
- Ability to raise the arms, bend the elbows, flip hand palm up and palm down, and extend the wrists
- Normal sensation in the head, neck, shoulders, and outer areas of the arms
- Ability to use tenodesis grasp patterns
Find out more about C6spinal cord injuries »
C7 Spinal Cord Injury
Due to increased mobility of the upper extremities, individuals with a C7 spinal cord injury generally have a great deal of independence. With a C7 level of injury, individuals retain motor control of their arm and hand but are unable to fully bend the fingers.
A person with a C7 spinal cord injury should be able to:
- feel sensations at the head, neck, shoulder, arms, index fingers, and thumbs
- demonstrate full range of motion in the shoulders and neck
- raise the arms
- bend and straighten the elbows
- bend and straighten the wrists
- extend the fingers
Learn more about C7spinal cord injuries »
C8 Spinal Cord Injury
Lastly, we’ll discuss what to expectafter a C8 spinal cord injury.
Generally, individuals with a C8 SCI can carry out activities of daily living on their own because the majority of their upper body functions are unaffected. After a C8 spinal cord injury, individuals can expect:
- Full range of motion in the wrists, elbows, shoulders, and neck
- Hand weakness
- Normal sensation in the fingers, arms, shoulders, neck, and head
People with a C8 SCI should practicehand exercisesto help recover strength and dexterity in their fingers.
Discover more about C8 spinal cord injuries»
Is it Possible to Recover from Cervical Spinal Cord Injury?
For many, there is hope for recovery after cervical spinal cord injury. While damaged regions of the spinal cord are unable to heal themselves, unaffected regions at the level of injury have the potential to utilize neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity refers to the central nervous system’s ability to make adaptive changes and reorganize its neural circuitry. It allows for functions affected by cervical spinal cord injuries to be rewired to unaffected regions and relearned through repetitive, task-specific practice. This is why participating in rehabilitative therapies like physical and occupational therapy after SCI is essential.
Every time you perform a movement, it stimulates the spinal cord. Consistent practice helps reinforce demand for that movement and encourages the spinal cord to utilize neuroplasticity to reorganize itself. The more you practice, the stronger the new pathways for that function become.
Unfortunately, only spared neural pathways are capable of utilizing neuroplasticity, which means only individuals with incomplete spinal cord injuries have the potential to recover. However, that does not mean there is no room for improvement for individuals with complete SCIs.
Rehabilitative therapies for complete SCI will focus on maximizing the individual’s functional independence and mobility. This may involve learning alternative ways to perform everyday tasks such as using adaptive tools or using unaffected areas of the body to compensate for paralyzed areas.
While compensatory strategies are the main focus of complete SCI rehabilitation currently, there are promising new treatment options being researched, such as stem cell therapy, to help even those with complete spinal cord injuries regain functions.
Understanding Cervical Spinal Cord Injury
Cervical spinal cord injuries are the most common type of spinal cord injuries. Depending on the level of injury, cervical SCIs can directly affect mobility in the neck, arms, and fingers. They often can result in trunk and lower body paralysis, depending on the severity of injury.
As you’ve just learned, higher-level cervical SCIs have very different functional and sensory outcomes than lower-level injuries. Additionally, less severe spinal cord lesions will result in fewer impairments. As a result, you may still be able to feel and control areas of your body that are connected below your level of injury.
Individuals with incomplete cervical spinal cord injuries have the potential to recover affected functions and improve their mobility by participating in highly repetitive, targeted exercise. Consistently practicing affected movements helps reinforce demand for those functions and encourage the spinal cord to make adaptive changes.
We hope this article helped you understand what to expect after a cervical spinal cord injury and that there is hope for recovery.
What functions can be lost if you have an injury to the cervical spine? ›
- Most severe of the spinal cord injury levels.
- Paralysis in arms, hands, trunk and legs.
- Potential inability to breath independently, cough or control bowel movements or bladder.
- Impaired or reduced ability to speak.
A chest (thoracic) or lower back (lumbar) injury can affect your torso, legs, bowel and bladder control, and sexual function. A neck (cervical) injury affects the same areas in addition to affecting movements of your arms and, possibly, your ability to breathe.Can you recover from a cervical spinal cord injury? ›
Unfortunately, there's no way to reverse damage to the spinal cord. But researchers are continually working on new treatments, including prostheses and medications, that might promote nerve cell regeneration or improve the function of the nerves that remain after a spinal cord injury.How long is recovery from cervical injury? ›
Although most recovery occurs within the first 3-6 months following a spinal cord injury, recovery can continue well past that period. Consistently practicing affected movements/activities will help promote neuroplasticity.What are 3 important functions of the cervical spine? ›
Your cervical spine consists of the first seven vertebrae in your spine. It provides support for the weight of your head, surrounds and protects your spinal cord, and allows for a wide range of head motions.What part of the body does the cervical spine control? ›
In addition to supporting the head, the cervical spine allows for the neck's flexibility and head's range of motion. Facilitating flow of blood to the brain. Small holes (foramina in the transverse processes) in the cervical spine provide a passageway for vertebral arteries to carry blood to the brain.What are the most important functions of the spinal cord? ›
Within the spinal column lies the spinal cord, a vital aspect of the central nervous system (CNS). The three primary roles of the spinal cord are to send motor commands from the brain to the body, send sensory information from the body to the brain, and coordinate reflexes.What are the signs of recovery from spinal cord injury? ›
- Spasticity Below the Injury Site. Spasticity occurs when signals between the brain and areas below the SCI site are disrupted, which may also result in hyperreflexia and involuntary muscle spasms. ...
- Tingling Below the Site of the Injury. ...
- Pain Below the Level of Injury.
Autonomic dysreflexia is a condition that emerges soon after a spinal cord injury, usually when the damage has occurred at or above the T6 level.Can cervical spine heal itself? ›
Can it be cured? Although there are several very good nonsurgical and surgical treatment options available to relieve the symptoms of cervical myelopathy and radiculopathy, there is no cure, per se, for the degenerative changes in the cervical spine that caused the symptoms.
How long does it take to fully recover from a spinal cord injury? ›
With many spinal cord injuries, especially incomplete ones, the individual may recover some function as late as 18 months after the injury. In very rare cases, people with spinal cord injury will regain some functioning years after the injury.What happens if the cervical is damaged? ›
Cervical spinal cord injuries are typically the most severe type of spinal cord injuries. They may result in quadriplegia or tetraplegia with associated loss of muscle strength in all four extremities. Based on the extent of the injury, cervical spinal cord injuries can be complete or incomplete.Is walking good for cervical spine? ›
The results are in line with the findings of a previous study showing that increasing daily walking steps by 1000 steps reduced the risk of neck pain by 14% in those with sedentary jobs.How do you recover from a cervical problem? ›
- Regular exercise. Maintaining activity will help speed recovery, even if you have to temporarily modify some of your exercises because of neck pain. ...
- Pain relievers you can buy without a prescription. ...
- Heat or ice. ...
- Soft neck brace.
Keep your head and neck in neutral position (Figure 1). With chest lifted, gently but firmly pull both shoulders backward while squeezing both shoulder blades backward and downward. Hold for 10 seconds and work up to 30 seconds. Perform one set of 5 repetitions, twice a day.What are the 3 movements of the cervical spine? ›
Cervical flexion: bending the head forward towards the chest. Cervical extension: bending the head backward with the face towards the sky. Cervical rotation: turning the head to the left or the right. Cervical side-bending: tipping the head to the side or touching an ear to the shoulder of the same side.What causes cervical spine damage? ›
Trauma is the most common cause of cervical injury, and this can include motor vehicle accidents, falls, penetrating or blunt trauma, sports-related or diving injuries.  Nontraumatic causes can include compression fractures from osteoporosis, arthritis, or cancer and inflammation of the spinal cord.What movements are available at the cervical spine? ›
The cervical spine's range of motion is approximately 80° to 90° of flexion, 70° of extension, 20° to 45° of lateral flexion, and up to 90° of rotation to both sides.What does C4 C5 C6 C7 control? ›
C5, as mentioned earlier, along with C3 and C4, contributes to the phrenic nerve that innervates the diaphragm. Roots C5, C6, and C7 produce the long thoracic nerve, responsible for controlling the serratus anterior.What does disc C5 C6 control? ›
A c5-c6 herniated disc can affect the nerves that control the muscles in the arms, neck, shoulders, hands as well as the head, eyes, ears, or thyroid gland. Symptoms in these areas in addition to pain in the neck is very common with c5-c6 disc herniations.
What are the symptoms of cervical nerve damage? ›
The pain caused by cervical radiculopathy can be described as burning or sharp, stemming from the neck and traveling to other parts of the body connected to the damaged nerve. Radiculopathy symptoms might include: Tingling or numbness in the fingers or hand. Weakness in arm, shoulder or hand.What are the two functions of spinal cord? ›
It relays messages between the brain and other parts of the body. Spinal cord contains nerves which can transmit messages from brain to body parts and from body parts to brain. Spinal cord contains many nerve centres which control the reflex actions of the body.What part of the spine controls the heart? ›
The parasympathetic fibers, controlling the heart, exit the central nervous system at brain stem level, i.e. the vagal nerve (cranial nerve X). In contrast, the sympathetic control of the heart originates from the upper thoracic spinal cord segments (Th1–Th5).Which part of the brain is connected to spinal cord? ›
At the base of the brain, the brain stem connects to the spinal cord and is made up of the midbrain, pons, and medulla oblongata.Can you recover from a C6 spinal cord injury? ›
Individuals with milder C6 SCIs typically have different recovery outlooks because they have more spared neural pathways. However, many other factors such as motivation, intensity of rehabilitation, and pre-existing health conditions can also influence recovery after C6 spinal cord injury.Which medicine is best for spinal cord? ›
Medication may include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), gabapentin (Neurontin), muscle relaxants, anti-depressants, and painkillers.Which level of damage means the person with spinal cord damage will require a ventilator? ›
A patient with a complete injury above C5 will typically have impaired diaphragm function and is likely to require a period of endotracheal intubation and mechanical ventilation . A C5 injury level may also involve diaphragm weakness but is more likely to be associated with the ability to breathe independently.What is the primary cause of death in a spinal cord injury patient? ›
In our study, and in all the cited studies, respiratory diseases were the leading cause of death after SCI, most strongly associated with the higher level of injury, and not showing improvement over time.What level of the spinal cord is most commonly injured? ›
SCI typically affects the cervical level of the spinal cord (50%) with the single most common level affected being C5 (1). Other injuries include the thoracic level (35%) and lumbar region (11%).How do you treat cervical spine without surgery? ›
Non-surgical treatment may include a combination of:
Relaxation techniques, breathing exercises and mindful meditation. The use of medications. Interventional techniques such as nerve blocks (spinal injections) Epidural injections in the lumbar and cervical spine.
Does cervical pain ever go away? ›
Neck pain caused by muscle tension or strain usually goes away on its own within a few days. Neck pain that continues longer than several weeks often responds to exercise, stretching, physical therapy and massage. Sometimes, you may need steroid injections or even surgery to relieve neck pain.Can you recover from a C5 spinal cord injury? ›
This study demonstrated that with intense rehabilitation, complete C5 spinal cord injury patients made significant improvements in self-care skills and mobility tasks, although many still required some degree of assistance with these functions.Are most spinal cord injuries permanent? ›
Spinal cord injuries are catastrophic, leading to life-changing consequences that can last for decades. While there are some instances where a person can eventually recover fully after suffering damage to the spinal cord, the unfortunate truth is that, in most cases, this type of injury will be permanent.How serious is cervical spinal cord compression? ›
Spinal cord compression can cause cauda equina syndrome, which needs medical attention right away. Call your healthcare provider or go to the emergency room if you have: Sudden loss of bowel or bladder control. Severe or increasing numbness between your legs, inner thighs, or back of your legs.What is the most common injury to the cervical spine? ›
Cervical sprains and strains
Fractures and dislocations of the cervical spine account for half of all spinal column injuries that occur annually. Because of the cervical spine's mobility, it is the most vulnerable to injury during times of trauma.
Brain damage was more frequently associated with upper cervical injury. Those patients with upper cervical injury are at greater risk of suffering from skull base fractures and severe intracranial hematomas than those with mid to lower cervical injury.What is the best sleeping position for cervical spine? ›
What is the best sleeping position for neck pain? Two sleeping positions are easiest on the neck: on your side or on your back. If you sleep on your back, choose a rounded pillow to support the natural curve of your neck, with a flatter pillow cushioning your head.How do you sit with cervical spine? ›
Sit in a high-back, firm chair with arm rests. Sitting in a soft couch or chair will tend to make you round your back and won't support the curve of your back. At work, adjust your chair height and workstation so you can sit up close to your work and tilt it up at you. Don't hunch or lean over your work.What activities should be avoided with cervical compression? ›
This can lead to increased compression and pain. Contact sports like basketball, football, soccer, and martial arts are exercises to avoid with spinal stenosis. These activities can involve sudden trauma to the spine, which may lead to further injury.How long does a cervical injury take to heal? ›
With proper treatment and rest, most patients will recover from a neck strain or sprain within four to six weeks. If the strain or sprain is severe, it can take three months or more to fully recover.
How long do cervical spine injuries take to heal? ›
Recovery, if it occurs, usually relates to the severity and level of the injury. The fastest rate of recovery is often seen in the first six months, but some people make small improvements for up to 1 to 2 years.How long does it take for cervical nerves to heal? ›
For many people, pain from a pinched nerve in the neck will resolve on its own within 4 weeks. However, it is common for the symptoms of a pinched nerve in the neck to return over time. If the symptoms of cervical radiculopathy do not clear up, there are nonsurgical and surgical treatments available.What food is good for cervical spine? ›
- Leafy greens like spinach, kale, and arugula.
- Nuts such as walnuts and almonds.
- Fish with plenty omega 3's like salmon, tuna, and sardines.
- Fruits like watermelon, pomegranate, cherries, and blueberries.
- Alternate heat and cold. Reduce inflammation by applying cold, such as an ice pack or ice wrapped in a towel, for up to 15 minutes several times a day during the first 48 hours. After that, use heat. ...
- Home exercises. Keeping the neck moving is important.
Cervical instability is a medical condition in which loose ligaments in your upper cervical spine may lead to neuronal damage and a large list of adverse symptoms. If you have cervical instability, you may be experiencing migraines, vertigo, or nausea. Fortunately, this condition is treatable, though not curable.Can a cervical spine injury affect your legs? ›
Cervical myelopathy can affect both the arms and the legs.What are the effects of neck injury? ›
Common neck injury symptoms
Muscle spasms in neck and shoulders. Neck pain. Stiffness in the neck. Weakness in the legs, arms, hands or fingers.
Cervical spinal cord injuries are usually the most devastating and often irreversible and permanent. Cervical spinal cord injuries may result in quadriplegia or tetraplegia and loss of muscle strength in some or all extremities.Can a neck injury affect your memory? ›
The simple answer is no. Spinal cord injury will affect motor and sensory functions relayed via the spinal cord, but it will not cause memory loss because this ability is housed in the brain. Memory is a cognitive function and cognitive functions are regulated by the brain, not the spinal cord.What are long term effects of neck or spinal trauma? ›
Patients can suffer from things like bladder infections or kidney stones. Osteoporosis is another worry. Doctors also warn about muscle spasticity and syringomyelia, a numbness and weakness in the extremities, a common side effect in spinal cord injury patients.
Does spinal cord injury affect memory? ›
Many people who have had severe trauma to their neck and back may also have injuries to their brain. These can range from a mild concussion to more severe injuries. They can cause difficulty with memory, concentration, or communication, and can cause personality changes.Can cervical spine problems cause leg weakness? ›
Injuries, disorders and conditions that affect the cervical spine (neck) can trigger symptoms that extend far beyond the first seven vertebra of the spine. Individuals sometimes complain about weakness in the arms, hands and even legs after a neck injury – even minor ones.Can cervical spine problems cause fatigue? ›
If the spine is out of alignment, the rest of the body needs to work that much harder to maintain proper posture. If nerves are pinched and muscles are tight, it is going to lead to a tremendous power drain. This is going to make the person feel fatigued or overly tired.Can cervical cause weakness in legs? ›
Cervical spondylosis usually doesn't lead to disability. But sometimes these changes in the spine can cause the spinal cord or nerve roots attached to it to become compressed. This can cause your legs or hands to feel weak or clumsy.How does your neck condition affect your daily life? ›
Neck Pain Can Negatively Affect Your Daily Life
Living with constant neck discomfort is debilitating, making working and enjoying life difficult. In addition, it can prevent you from doing necessary things like sleeping, being productive at work and spending quality time with loved ones.
The long-term course for neck pain is not good. Patients continue to suffer years later. One study looked at outcomes after five years and found that about 50% of patients continued to have pain and disability.How do you recover from a neck injury? ›
- Ice your neck to reduce pain and swelling as soon as you can after the injury. ...
- Take painkillers or other drugs, if recommended by your doctor. ...
- Use a neck brace or collar to add support, if your doctor recommends it.
There are several different cervical spine disorders that qualify for disability benefits from the SSA. Among those conditions are cervical cancer, ankylosing spondylitis, cervicalgia, spinal stenosis, and others. You will need to provide hard medical evidence to support your claim and to confirm the diagnosis.Is cervical spine curable? ›
Can it be cured? Although there are several very good nonsurgical and surgical treatment options available to relieve the symptoms of cervical myelopathy and radiculopathy, there is no cure, per se, for the degenerative changes in the cervical spine that caused the symptoms.What is the most important thing to do if you suspect a cervical spine injury? ›
If you suspect someone has a spinal injury:
Call 911 or emergency medical help. Keep the person still. Place heavy towels or rolled sheets on both sides of the neck or hold the head and neck to prevent movement. Avoid moving the head or neck.