Complete spinal injury

12 November 2021

It is believed at least 50,000 people are living with the effects of a spinal cord injury in the UK – with 2,500 more diagnosed each year.

Spinal cord injuries will be classed as either complete or incomplete. Both injuries have an enormous impact on an individual and their family, but a complete spinal injury is one of the most serious types of trauma a person can suffer.

To find out more about complete spinal injuries, read on…

What is complete spinal cord injury?

All spinal injuries are serious because the spinal cord is the 'body’s information superhighway' and any damage to it can have life-changing consequences. But a complete spinal injury usually has a far greater impact compared to incomplete spinal injuries. This is because, when you suffer a complete spinal cord injury, you will lose all sensation and function below the area of the injury.

Both sides of your body will be affected in the same way by a complete spinal cord injury. But it does not necessarily mean that your spinal cord is severed. In a lot of cases, it can be the result of a bruise or contusion to the spinal cord – anything that stops nerves doing what they should.

In a complete spinal cord injury, your brain is no longer able to send signals past that damaged area.

The different types of complete spinal cord injury

There are several different types of complete spinal cord injury, based on the location of the injury. This will also determine how much function, feeling and movement is lost.

Cervical spinal cord injury C1-C8 (Quadriplegia or Tetraplegia)

Injuries to the cervical spine such as a complete C4 spinal cord injury will often cause paralysis or weakness in both arms and legs. This will result in quadriplegia – also known as tetraplegia. All areas of the body below the level of the injury can be affected. A cervical injury can also lead to the loss of physical sensation, breathing difficulties, the ability to control body temperature or issues with bowel and bladder control, as well as sexual dysfunction.

Thoracic spinal cord injury T1-T12 (Paraplegia)

If you damage the thoracic spine and suffer a T4 complete spinal cord injury, for example, it can lead to paralysis or weakness of the legs (paraplegia). It is also a type of complete spinal cord injury that can cause loss of physical sensation, bowel and bladder control or sexual dysfunction, but thoracic injuries do not usually affect the arms or hands.

Lumbar spinal cord injury L1-L5

An injury to the lumbar spine typically results in paralysis or weakness of the legs (paraplegia). Loss of physical sensation, bowel and bladder control, or sexual dysfunction can also occur. But you will usually still have shoulder, arm and hand function.

Sacral spinal cord injury S1-S5

Sacral injuries mainly cause a loss of bowel and bladder function, as well as sexual dysfunction. This type of injury can also cause weakness or paralysis of the hips and legs.

What causes complete spinal cord injuries?

A spinal injury happens when the spine that surrounds the spinal cord is damaged. This can be the result of a fracture, dislocation or compression. It can also be caused if your spine is either bent backwards and forwards with force (hyperextension and hyperflexion). If this happens to you, a doctor decides the level of the spine that is injured and if you have a complete or incomplete spinal cord injury when you arrive at hospital.

Spinal Research data shows that one of the most common causes of spinal injuries in the UK are road traffic accidents. Of course, there are numerous other potential causes: workplace accidents, falls or sporting incidents. Too often, spinal injuries occur in an accident that could – and perhaps should – have been prevented. If the accident is the result of someone else’s negligence then you may be able to claim compensation.  We can help you establish if you have a claim and then progress it. We explain more about our services below.

What are typical complete spinal cord injury symptoms?

At first, it might not be immediately obvious if you are suffering from a complete or incomplete injury. In the days and weeks that follow, however, you might start to experience the following complete spinal cord injury symptoms:

  • Loss of function or movement
  • Loss of sensation or feeling
  • Loss of bowel and/or bladder control
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Pain or sensation from damaged nerves
  • Sexual dysfunction or loss of sensitivity. The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation has a lot of helpful information about how paralysis affects your sexual experience.

It is important to remember that complete spinal cord injury symptoms will be determined by the level at which your spine is damaged. The symptoms can also vary from person to person.

How can complete spinal injuries affect someone?

Any damage to the spine that results in paraplegia, quadriplegia or tetraplegia can have a huge and lasting effect on someone’s life. With a complete spinal cord injury, that impact can be much deeper because of the obvious and permanent loss of functions or sensation. But it is not just these physical consequences that can affect someone.

If you suffer a complete spinal injury, it could put you at greater risk of other conditions – from pressure ulcers to blood clots and pneumonia. So, looking after your health becomes even more important as you rebuild your life after your injury.

It is also essential not to overlook the emotional impact of a complete spinal cord injury. Such a life-changing event can be overwhelming – and it is often tough to know where to start. You can, however, turn to organisations like the Spinal Injuries Association (SIA) for support and advice.

The SIA and others are also there for relatives or friends of someone who suffers a spinal injury. It can mean changing the way you do things or helping your loved one with everyday tasks. This can take its own emotional toll. But it is important to remember that you are not alone.

What are the complete spinal cord injury treatment options?

Each person is different – and so is the complete spinal cord injury treatment they receive.

If you are involved in an accident that damages your spine, it is possible that surgery is needed. It can remove anything pressing against your cord and help avoid any further damage.

The SIA advises that – in most cases – bed rest is the most effective complete spinal cord injury treatment. While it cannot restore movement or sensation below the level of the injury, it allows the spinal cord to recover and put you on a path to as full a recovery as possible.

This is not a quick process, however, and can take up to nine months. Once it is possible to get out of bed, further examination will help find out what the next steps should be. This could include a programme of physiotherapy or occupational therapy – depending on the severity of the injury.

Is recovery from complete spinal cord injury possible?

For a person living with a spinal cord injury, the chances of recovering any feeling or movement are slim – but not impossible. Sadly, a complete spinal injury makes this even more unlikely when compared with an incomplete injury.

But there are many other ways in which recovery from complete spinal cord injury is possible. It is about how best to regroup and rebuild so that you still enjoy a long and fulfilling life – even if it does mean first coming to terms with what you can or cannot do as a result of your injury.

The right care, rehabilitation and support can put you on the right path. Here at Shoosmiths, this is something we can help with if you are injured in an accident that was someone else’s fault.

How can Shoosmiths help if you suffer a complete spinal injury?

Getting life back on track after a complete spinal cord injury is not something that you or your family have to do alone. It is hard to take on all the challenges and changes that it can bring – not least if the injury occurs in a sudden, avoidable accident where someone else is to blame.

At Shoosmiths, we pride ourselves on going that extra mile for the people we represent.

Our specialist spinal cord injury solicitors have a proven track record in claiming compensation for people like you – people who suffer life-changing injuries through no fault of their own. 

You can use the compensation you need – and deserve – for whatever it takes to rebuild after your complete spinal cord injury. It could be the cost of medical treatment, future care or any home modifications. It can also cover any income you lose if you take a long period of time off work.

Not only that, but we have strong relationships with leading charities and groups, including the SIA. It means we can put you in touch with wonderful rehabilitation providers, support groups and more – ensuring that you get the help, advice and guidance you and your family need.

We are here if you would like to discuss your experience free of charge and in total confidence with a friendly member of our team. Call us today on 0370 086 8686 or send us a message.



This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024

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