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The Difference Between Complete and Incomplete Spinal Cord Injuries


A spinal cord injury can occur during a traumatic incident, such as a car or pedestrian accident, a slip and fall on icy steps, or even a work injury. The effects of a spinal cord injury will depend on the location of the injury and severity of the trauma.

Doctors use the classifications of “incomplete” and “complete” when describing the nature of a spinal cord injury. A study by the Rick Hansen Institute showed more than 85,000 people in Canada have suffered a spinal cord injury of one degree or another.

Below is a guideline to understanding the key differences between incomplete and complete spinal cord injuries and the implications of such injuries.

What is an incomplete spinal cord injury?

In an incomplete injury, the spinal cord is still able to convey some signals to the brain. The Mayo Clinic describes an incomplete spinal cord injury as one in which the patient retains some sensory or motor function below the point of injury. The designation of “incomplete injury” may mean different things for different patients. There is a wide variance of severity with this designation.

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For instance, one patient with an incomplete spinal cord injury may be able to retain 50 percent of strength in both hands, while another patient may have mobility but no strength in the hands.

What is a complete spinal cord injury?

A complete spinal cord injury is one in which the patient experiences a total (or near total) loss of movement and feeling below the point of injury. This does not necessarily indicate all nerves and axons have been destroyed below the point of injury, but they fail to function properly because of the spinal cord injury.

How do doctors determine the severity of a spinal cord injury?

Physicians will perform an initial assessment of the patient, checking for sensory function. Additional diagnostic tests may be necessary if a victim is unconscious or initial evaluations prove inconclusive.

Such tests include:

  • X-rays;
  • CT scans; and
  • MRIs.

Once the initial swelling reduces, a physician may use specialized neurological tests to evaluate the injury and determine if it is complete or incomplete.

What other classifications exist for spinal cord injuries?

A doctor may use other classifications to describe a spinal cord injury and its impact on a patient.

Some of the most common designators include:

  • paraplegia – refers to a spinal cord injury that results in paralysis in the legs, pelvis and part or all of the trunk; and
  • quadriplegia/tetraplegia – paralysis that includes hands, arms, legs and trunk.

A spinal cord injury of any degree, whether complete or incomplete, can result in a loss of movement and sensation, exaggerated reflexes and pain. Treatment will depend on the degree of injury but may include medications, surgery and specialty care.

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Are you concerned about how you’ll pay for your own healthcare or that of someone you love? Was your injury caused by someone else’s negligence? Learn about your options for compensation by scheduling a free case evaluation with the Preszler Injury Lawyers in Ontario – 1-800-JUSTICE® — or via our online form.

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