What Happens to the Spinal Cord?


The two main types of spinal cord injuries are complete and incomplete. A complete injury causes a total loss of sensation and movement below the level of the injury. An incomplete injury results in partial loss of sensation and movement below the level of the injury because only part of the spinal cord or nerves have been damaged.

Complete Spinal Cord Injury

A complete spinal cord injury is least likely to get better.

There is no function below the level of injury if the spinal cord injury is complete:

  • No movement
  • No sharp/dull sensation
  • No hot/cold sensation
  • No vibration sensation
  • No sensation of light or deep touch
  • No sense of position of the arms or legs
Figure9

Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury

The three main types of incomplete injuries are: Anterior Cord Syndrome, Central Cord Syndrome, and Brown-Séquard Syndrome.

Anterior Cord Syndrome:

This occurs when the front part of the spinal cord is damaged. This results in loss of the ability to move, and loss of sharp/dull and hot/cold sensations below the level of injury. However, the sense of position of the arms and legs, vibration, and sense of light/deep touch remain.

Anterior cord syndrome occurs with acute disc herniations, tumors, and when the head is forced to the chest (cervical flexion).

Figure10

Central Cord Syndrome:

This occurs when the middle part of the spinal cord is damaged. This results in more loss of movement and sensation in the arms than in the legs.

Central cord syndrome occurs with hyperextension injury (when the head is forced backwards). It also can be due to degenerative bone changes in the spine and/or narrowing of the spinal canal that surrounds the spinal cord.

Figure11

Brown-Séquard Syndrome:

This injury occurs when one-half of the spinal cord is damaged. This results in one side of the body being stronger than the other side below the level of injury. The side of the body that is weaker is able to feel sensations of hot/cold, sharp/dull better than the other side of the body. The strength and sensations vary depending on the degree of damage to the spinal cord.

Brown-Séquard syndrome occurs in some bullet or knife wound injuries, and rarely with acute ruptured discs.

Figure12

Publication of this educational booklet is made possible in part by the generous support of the following sponsors:

  • Metronic
  • Stryker
  • DePuy Spine
  • Fraternal Order of Eagles